Poet Amanda Gorman exudes hope even as Black oppression remains | Commentary

Politics

By JASON CAMPBELL GUEST COLUMNIST |FEB 09, 2021 |

“…Scripture tells us to envision / that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / And no one shall make them afraid…”

As Amanda Gorman spoke those words during the inauguration last month, I felt a chill — the hairs standing on the back of my neck. Praised for her diction, eloquence and intellectual accomplishment, Amanda Gorman has made her mark, subtly changing our prevailing expectations of Blacks in the spotlight. While Black culture is inextricable from music and entertainment in our country, with her bold words and melodic verses Gorman showed that Black excellence is far deeper and broader.

Now we are days later from again hearing the words of our first national youth poet laureate. This time her backdrop was not the West Front of the Capitol but our most iconic sporting event—the Superbowl.

“…Let us walk with these warriors, / Charge on with these champions, / And carry forth the call of our captains!

We celebrate them by acting / With courage and compassion, / By doing what is right and just. / For while we honor them today, It is they who every day honor us…”

Six months ago, at the beginning of the NFL season, many of the athletes joined the national chorus of cries for justice and reform. While only two teams played Sunday, all 32 took solace when Amanda Gorman took the stage.

The power of sports in this country has always been tremendous, but there is a shifting tide in America where inequity and inequality will no longer remain obscured just because a game is on. As a young Black boy growing up in Washington, D.C., I pleaded with my parents for season tickets for the team that at one time had broken the racial barrier by fielding Doug Williams — the first Black quarterback to be named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. Now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the newly cemented Super Bowl champions — have four Black coaches in the top coordinator positions, another proclamation that Black men can succeed not only between the lines but outside the lines as well.

In the past 12 months, empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on matters of life and death, but the struggle for racial justice in this country is nothing new. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing — a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have followed their example, this time kneeling to push forward national conversations.

Being a Black sportsman has never been easy. Critics argue that professional athletes are well paid and thus have little to complain about, but sadly their opinions may often serve as the only voices for their voiceless brothers and sisters. Surely Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above on the current crop of outspoken sports icons because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.

Amanda Gorman’s meteoric rise in the national consciousness has been inspiring but should not lull us into thinking we have reached our goal.

We have not.

She represents hope and a deep-rooted excellence that has been buried by historic levels of oppression ready to be unraveled. Sunday was a reminder that our destiny is tied to our dreams. If we are to learn anything from her let it be that even in the darkest of days, we all have light to share, or as Ms. Gorman said far better:

“For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it…”

Op-ed: US Capitol riots, MLK Jr. Day remind us there are still two Americas

Race

By JASON CAMPBELL CHICAGO TRIBUNE |JAN 15, 2021

Unlike many other Black residents of Washington, D.C., I had the luxury of visiting the U.S. Capitol building as a child. I walked within the red ropes side by side with my mostly white middle-school classmates — wearing a long-sleeve button-down shirt and slacks — knowing that because I am Black I could find myself in trouble for something as simple as speaking too loudly.

As an adult, I watched Jan. 6 as that same Capitol — the seat of our democracy — was stormed by an angry, predominantly white pro-Trump mob determined to stop a joint session of Congress set to certify the presidential election results. They destroyed property, assaulted journalists and condemned anyone on their destructive path. Images and videos showed many police officers at best unprepared and at worst unwilling to stop the attack.

Why does society tolerate different expectations for Black men? How can anyone deny that there are two Americas? And yet, many do.

I read a quote from a fellow Black male physician on Twitter, “We’re not asking you to shoot them like you shoot us, we’re asking you to NOT shoot us like you don’t shoot them …”

Eight months ago, George Floyd was murdered under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Black Lives Matter supporters and others filled the streets in protest over the summer. Yet, since the murder of George Floyd, police in American cities continue to murder unarmed and nonviolent Black men. In contrast, how can one explain the docile handling of those insurrectionists at the Capitol except as the latest and starkest evidence of America’s oldest and most vile double standard. As Americans, we can no longer ignore the threat of white nationalism and white supremacy.

To understand this monumental occasion, we must retrace our steps in history. The federal government relied heavily on enslaved labor to ensure the nation’s new capital city could receive Congress when it moved to the District of Columbiafrom Philadelphia in 1800. Enslaved Black laborers — rented from their owners — were involved in almost every stage of the building’s construction. Now, as we’ve seen through the footage from Jan. 6, the Capitol employs Black men who wear police uniforms and maintenance uniforms. From building the Capitol to cleaning the debris left behind to protecting those inside, Black men continue to put the very nation that too often forgets about them on their shoulders.

As another Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches Monday, his words reverberate as loudly now as they ever have — “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Eugene Goodman — a Capitol Police officer — faced challenge and controversy directly when he put himself in harm’s way and utilized a measured response toward the mostly white assailants. His nonviolent actions likely prevented the mob from entering the Senate chambers. His actions likely saved lives. This is what we, as Black men, also deserve in our interactions with police officers.

The more important question, though, is how do we move forward now as a nation? We must focus not only on the people storming the Capitol but on the policies that have made two Americas possible. We must work to undo the laws and practices that enshrine inequality in this country.

For decades, our nation has confined its focus on Black history to the shortest month, February, as Black History Month. This past year has forced us to confront and acknowledge our nation’s Black history month after month — a discussion we all must keep up to move forward.

The Gifts Not Found Under The Tree

Holiday, Lifestyle

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” Memories are what will afford us the ability to overcome this pandemic. Memories can nourish troubled souls and calm distracted minds. In the moment we may have been frustrated or annoyed but in hindsight the triviality of what once loomed large is clear and we cannot help but smile and laugh at ourselves. Sacrificing holiday gatherings this year for many more in the future is what is being requested by the CDC, healthcare workers, and a neighbor with a chronic health condition who could suffer if hospitals are at maximum capacity.

Picture frames break apart, newspaper articles tear, and photographs fade, but memories are ours to keep. COVID-19 has forced many to use memories of their loved ones sooner than they expected. Despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many Americans unwilling to relinquish familial traditions traveled for Thanksgiving and now U.S. hospitals are in the process of halting elective surgeries again as another surge appears imminent. As cases rise across the country virtual encounters, small gatherings, and limited travel are all highly recommended as we move into December. But, with the winter holiday season now upon us, will anything change?

In February before the pandemic, I visited a small shop in Seaside, Oregon. As I entered the Christmas room in the back of the shop, I saw a piano ornament on the store’s shelf—nearly identical to the one sitting in the box labeled ornaments in my parents’ pantry. Thousands of miles apart from my family, while holding this 4” ornament in my hand, I could not help but think back to those snowy, spirit-filled holidays spent with them.

One night, when I was a young boy, a frostbitten air swirled around me as I waited on our front steps for my father’s arrival. He had been tasked with returning home with a Christmas tree. As time passed I realized in his usual spirit he had chosen to drive all around town searching for the “best deal”—as opposed to going straight to the tree sellers less than a half mile away. When his car finally pulled up his headlights greeted me, shining directly in my face. Together, we dragged the tree out of his car and down the wood steps into our rugged basement. From the first glimpse I knew the tree needed to be trimmed but my father reassured me it would fit our short ceilings. In actuality, my sister and I believe the ritual of the tree scraping the ceiling is one he would surely miss too much. Thus, once we trimmed the tree, in one of his recent athletic achievements, my father got on the ground and adjusted the tree as I held it upright, my sister standing eight feet back working as a marshal to ensure our tree landed straight in the center. Mother added wood to the fire, my sister grabbed the box of ornaments, and I started the Christmas playlist. Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Michael Bublé—the gang had arrived for another year of tree lighting. 

Health, humanity, and sacrifice are the most important gifts this year. These gifts cannot be found in Santa’s bag but are gifts we can give one another. This is an all-or-nothing moment in the history of American public health. Either we come together by staying apart and making fact-based decisions to tackle this pandemic or this pandemic will overwhelm us in ways we can envision and in ways we cannot. It is time to teach grandmother how to use Zoom or show her how the FaceTime icon on the iPad can bring her into the same room as her grandson 2,600 miles away. We must embrace change, caring and sacrifice this holiday season or suffering will most certainly embrace us. 

Being with family is everything I desire right now, but one day in hindsight I will see that sacrifice was the right choice.  

My Black vote matters equally whether I cast it in my white lab coat or in a hoody

politics

By Jason L. Campbell Special to The Seattle Times, Oct. 31, 2020

I voted in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008, and in Washington, D.C., in 2012. I voted in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016 and this year, I will vote in Portland. The years and the cities may change, but my dreams and racial identity do not. The first time I voted, I remember hearing the voice of my grandmother, Florence E. Adams, who as a Black woman spent many years of her adult life dissuaded to vote through tactics and barriers still seen today. Even now, her words echo every time I see a ballot box: “You can never be too tired to vote.”

Today, a Black man in a white coat, I walk the hospital corridor in Portland. A stethoscope is in my left pocket and a pager fastened to my right hip. A hands-free communication device is pinned to the collar of my light blue scrub top as the nurse calls, “Dr. Campbell to come to the patient’s bedside.” Later today, when I cast my vote, I will not be wearing my white lab coat but rather a hooded sweatshirt. The difference in how I am treated in a hooded sweatshirt compared to my white lab coat is a necessary reminder of why this vote matters.

In 2016, I was a medical student in Columbus, Ohio. Politically, Ohio is a puzzle mixed equally with progressive and conservative pieces. A few weeks before the 2016 election, I attended a Buckeyes football game at Ohio Stadium. It was a significant game I had been excited about the entire week. Yet, my enthusiasm diminished as the national anthem began when a white man wearing a MAGA hat mocked Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest of police brutality. Only a few short breaths after, he cheered for the young Black men on the field wearing his beloved scarlet and gray. His view of Kaepernick as a Black man was different from how he viewed the players on the field. The contrast reminded me how much further we have to go and how unattainable the target we hope to reach is without voting.

In 2012, I started a premedical program in Manassas, Virginia, less than an hour from my hometown of Washington, D.C. A different political climate greeted me in Manassas. Mitt Romney signs were prominently displayed on nearly every street, adorning the lawns of many homes. I sat next to three classmates — Black men — as we closed our textbooks to watch Bill Clinton take the stage to make the case for the incumbent, President Barack Obama.

“I want to nominate a man cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside. I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American dream economy driven by innovation and creativity …,” Clinton said. On that evening, Clinton was addressing our country, but it felt as though he was speaking directly to us. Four Black men aspiring to be doctors, we burned with the same ambition that inspired a young Obama.

I recall in 2008 often wearing a hoody to class, hoping one day to exchange my sweatshirt for a white coat. I was 19-years-old, one year older than the minimum age required to vote. While this was the first time I had lived away from the safety of my Washington, D.C., home, Atlanta was considered to be a haven for Black people, a proud pocket of Black America deep in the conservative South. Long lines greeted me that warm November day as I approached the polling place with my breath half held at the possibility of electing the first Black president of the United States of America. My strongest memory from the election was observing my friend, standing on the stairs leaning against the banister, with tears streaming down her face. We all watched as our country elected the Black junior senator from Illinois president of the United States.

This was a moment of celebration, but more importantly a moment of reflection. I reflected back to images of my grandmother from the 1950s; the fortitude with which she stood hours in line to cast her vote for issues similar to the ones many Black people still face today. Like my friend on the stairs, I know on that election night my grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair wiping away her own tears in disbelief. 

Whether cast wearing a hoody or a white coat, there is power in every vote, if only we believed it.

“You Want Our Talent, But Not Our Humanity” – The Start of Another NFL Season

Athletics, Race

The start of the football season began with an embrace of unity. What followed? An outpouring of boos from the socially distant crowd at Arrowhead stadium.

American sports are at a crossroads. In times of fear and uncertainty, we often look to athletics to provide joy, inspiration, and clarity. But social justice will no longer afford our national pastimes the ability to obscure our collective lens. Indeed, only the past few months without sports—those empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums—have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on something far more important: police brutality against Black men in America. 

Being a Black athlete has never been easy. There is far too much pressure to keep your head down and to, “just play.” Yet never have we needed more from our most prominent Black icons. Recently, professional athletes, recognizing their reach and the power of symbols, have raised awareness of long-burning issues. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.

As a Black boy growing up in Washington D.C., I was nine years old when I pleaded with my parents for season tickets to see my favorite football team. My home team, Washington Football, had at one time bucked the status quo by fielding Doug Williams, the first Black Superbowl-winning MVP quarterback. I marveled at what the players had achieved on the field, however, as a child I did not see beyond. 

As a Black man, I still marvel at the athletic achievement, but I know now the more important achievements are cultural. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing—a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos once stood in protest, Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have knelt, using their influence to start national conversations. From fists heard around the world to kneeling under the flag the debate continues as Americans are fiercely divided on whether kneeling is dishonorable or appropriate, muting the original reason for the public display—police violence towards Black men. 

Each game day, we applaud Black men for athletic achievement, but every day, we fail to protect them in society. Too often we take the violence as a given, requiring parents to continue having grim conversations with their Black sons on how to navigate themselves safely in our current America. But, at this given crossroads society must now adapt as we adjust the lens.

Seattle Seahawks Head Football Coach Pete Carroll, addressing the media, said, “We all are seeing the truth of how Black people are being treated in our streets and … law enforcement is a huge issue to our guys, because they’re frightened for their lives. They’re frightened for the lives of their loved ones and their children.” 

Coach Carroll is right. There is a Black man in your life who needs you to listen to his story, to understand the daily challenges he faces because of the color of his skin. To know that he fears for the safety of his son.

Coach Carroll continued, “Our players are screaming at us… Can you hear me? They just want to be respected, … [and] accepted just like all of our white children and families…”

As another National Football League season starts, we must use this as an opportunity for advancement. We must honor the work being done by so many to fight for justice in America. You want our talent but not our humanity and that will no longer go unnoticed. 

America is on fire and I am burning.

Life, Race

America is on fire and I, a Black man, am burning. The suffering is unbearable. There is no relief. 

I am not responsible for the blaze, but I get blamed for its destruction. I don’t know how to escape the searing heat. But what would escape even mean? This is my country, my home. When the pain drives me to beat back against the flames I am scorned, derision coming down like ash. I am told I am fighting my country, when I am fighting to save it. 

My heart breaks. I see those with the means to help me put out this fire, but they do nothing. I yell, I scream, I wave my arms and beg them to help. They look at my panic with confusion.

First there was George Floyd and now Jacob Blake. Peaceful protests and now violent riots flood American streets as the conversation on police brutality continues. 

After I published a recent editorial, a reader wrote me, explaining why a few Black men—no longer alive to be celebrated on Father’s Day, to watch a daughter earn her diploma, or to watch a son have a child of his own—should have expected the lethal violence they received.

“From all appearances, it seems that George Floyd’s death was the fault of at least one officer. But that wouldn’t have happened if Floyd hadn’t tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. How difficult is it not to pass counterfeit currency?”

“Eric Garner had been arrested 20 times for selling illegal cigarettes. He had to know he would be arrested again. And when he was, he resisted. He was a big guy, bigger than the officers who tried to arrest him. If he had not resisted, he would be alive today. How difficult is it not to resist arrest?”

“Laquan McDonald would not have been killed if he hadn’t been high, walking down a Chicago street waving a knife, slashing tires and stabbing windshields. The office who shot him had no business doing so, but all of that could have been avoided if McDonald had just obeyed police orders. Everyone has a legal duty to obey a police order.”

These responses and thoughts are the acrid smoke of the fire, poisoning the air we breathe. 

The smoke burns in our lungs, saps our strength, and obscures the way forward, making progress even harder. Anyone who blames a Jacob Blake or a George Floyd for his own death is blaming me for a fire I did not start and that alone I cannot extinguish. 

As fire burns hotter and the temperature rises, I am scared. I am desperate. I know I am burning because of the color of my skin. 

I feel like giving up but what would that mean? Would that mean that I would need to be open to accepting that shooting an unarmed man seven times in the back or kneeling on a man’s neck as he begs for his life is ever justified? What if others say the man is a “criminal”—what then? 

But I know I cannot give up. How could I when I see young Black and Brown boys in the flames around me, watching me, looking up at me? I see their terror and I know I need to show them that being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, that courage is working for justice and peace in the face of your own fear. I need to show them that they deserve, as much as anyone, to tell themselves every morning, “I, too, am America.”

The power of Black women like Kamala Harris and my grandma

Race

Special to The Seattle Times

Now is the time to elect a Black woman as vice president, and I need not look any further than my own 97-year-old grandmother to understand why.

Often overlooked, Black women are at the center of the American story: They are and have long been serving in public and private spheres, as backbones of families and communities, as academics and intellectuals, and as political and civil rights leaders. Right now, many are nurses and physicians on the front lines of COVID-19, devoted to fighting a disease that threatens us all. 

The writer Janet Mock once wrote, “My grandmother and my two aunts were an exhibition in resilience and resourcefulness and Black womanhood. They rarely talked about the unfairness of the world with the words that I use now with my social justice friends, words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘equality,’ ‘oppression,’ and ‘discrimination.’ They didn’t discuss those things because they were too busy living it, navigating it, surviving it.”

In 1923, in an America that legalized racism, inequality, hate and discrimination, my grandmother Florence Elizabeth Carmichael was born. As her 97thbirthday approached, I called to ask what she would like as a gift. After a long pause, she said, “Nothing.” Given how much she has accomplished, though, her answer was fitting: She grew up a poor Black woman in the Great Depression who, despite overwhelming adversity, earned a university degree during the Jim Crow era and raised two daughters to become international leaders in their respective fields. What more could I give her? 

Her firm rooting in a family of shared sacrifices and responsibility helped my grandmother overcome countless challenges in her America. One of eight children raised by a single mother in Millville, New Jersey, my grandmother didn’t hear many words of encouragement — but she saw plenty of action. Her mother, with the wrong skin color, struggled to find work outside the home. After many years she found a job as a seamstress in a clothing factory, but the elation she must have felt did not last long. Daily, she would be given a quota of garments to sew; unlike her white counterparts, however, the more she produced the more she was told to make. Despite the grueling work, and her doctor’s recommendations to quit, she returned. Watching her mother dress for work each morning, my grandmother would look up and see immeasurable anguish and fierce determination.

In 1963, Florence earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from American University at a time when few Black women were college educated. Both through actions and words, she instilled the same ambition in her two Black daughters. Ask my grandmother what she did for Alicia and Lucile, and she will tell you there is no formula. Early on Lucile took a liking to science, which resulted in a science kit for Christmas; Alicia enjoyed dancing, which led to ballet class. These were small fires Grandma turned into burning dreams. Florence may not recall what she and her daughter discussed each night at dinner, but the effect of those nightly conversations is apparent. They led Alicia Adams to become vice president of international programming and dance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and her younger sister, Lucile Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., to become the first female Black Ph.D. epidemiologist in the United States.

Why is now the time for a Black woman as vice president? Black women are proven leaders. Evidence of their ability to thrive in the face of adversity, their capacity to inspire and their commitment to future generations is everywhere you look in America. Those characteristics are as necessary as they have ever been and will be pivotal in unifying our country, in showing Americans in blue states and red states that we are one. 

Like my grandmother, so many Black women will tell you they need nothing. We must honor their lived experiences by committing to resuscitate the soul of America, by building a more just and more equal society.

In her long career as a public servant, Kamala Harris has demonstrated her commitment to that cause. She has her own set of scars representative of the perseverance of herself and many women of color. She is the missing thread needed for the restoration of the quilt of America’s soul. And she is the vice president America needs and deserves for the uncertain future ahead.

Vulnerability and Where to Find It: A Doctor’s Tale

Medicine

Some patients we never forget.

She was a middle-aged white woman with brown hair and arms only a frequent gym-goer could possess. She walked through the clinic doors accompanied by her newfound love—newlyweds. My attending physician introduced himself and then it was my turn as the third-year medical student on the rotation.

She smiled in response, followed by a courteous, “Nice to meet you.” 

I had perched myself at the corner of the room against the sink at the base of what appeared to be an isosceles triangle. I was one of the bases, the neurology attending the other, and the patient and her husband represented the tip.

Here, I observed from my perch.

In her next few sentences she described how one morning, upon awakening, she noticed she was slurring her words of which she attributed to the notion of having suffered a mild stroke. In her mind, how could it be anything else? She was in her early 50s and unlike many of her friends she maintained a strict diet, a daily gym routine and a mentality to match. 

After multiple questions, some mild laughing with intermittent smiling even, the neurologist paused. He clasped his hands together as he let out a slow breath of air. 

“I firmly believe you have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and the slurred speech is the beginning of this process. This is not a stroke, I’m sorry.” 

I do not know which came first—the hopeless shriek or the cascade of tears. She knew she had just been given a death sentence and despite her husband’s best efforts there was no consoling her. A tear fell from my left eye as I quickly tilted my head back looking up towards the ceiling hoping gravity would play an effect and somehow the tears would roll back into my head rather than onto my white coat. From the actions and demeanor of my attending physician it was evident he had given this news before—one too many times. Two thoughts filled my mind as sadness filled the room. 

First, I thought about the disease process itself, which I had read about the night prior characterized by “a progressive loss of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord.” ALS is a progressive, disabling, and ultimately fatal disease of unknown cause starting with a gradual muscle weakness and wasting in the upper and lower extremities, muscle fasciculations and inevitably difficulty swallowing, phonating and breathing.1 This degenerative process continues until respiratory failure will most likely claim her life as it has so many before her.1

As my attending and I stood there watching her cry, the clock stood still. 

Why her? As time stood still, I kept asking myself. Why not her husband? Why not my attending? How would she spend her remaining months before the disease would cripple her into a wheelchair and the permanent requirement of mechanical ventilation would ensue? 

As physicians, too often, we are sculpted to believe we are invincible. We care for others at their most vulnerable time and it is always them—that is the vernacular. The patient’s tears made it clear she was not ready for such a diagnosis; she was not ready to die. I do not know if in the moment she was frightened by the certainty of death or death was far superior to the alternative life that awaited her. 

I, too, am scared of death. I am scared of being forgotten. After an obituary in a newspaper, a funeral, stories shared, beautiful words produced and dark clothing worn with covered eyes, life continues for everyone except the deceased. I wonder if any of these thoughts coursed through her mind at a rate similar to her tears.

Once her tear ducts seemingly dried up, she asked how she could obtain a second opinion. The attending told her he recommended she go to the Cleveland Clinic if she desired. She gathered her things with one tissue in hand and bloodshot eyes. As she stood up, my attending, gave her a hug she most deserved. A hug I will never forget. Once we were alone, he asked me if I was ok? “Yes, I’m ok. Thank you for asking,” I promptly replied. I thanked him for allowing me to join him in clinic then quickly left. 

I went to my car and I cried. 

I had lied. 

I was not ok. 

References:

  1. Zeller JL, Lynm C, Glass RM. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. JAMA. 2007;298(2):248. doi:10.1001/jama.298.2.248

Is the Road to Becoming A Physician Still Worth It?

adversity, medicine, Mentorship

In a simplistic answer, “Yes, it is. But it won’t be easy.” As my former track and field coach would tell me before an arduous workout, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Many are drawn to medicine with an affable desire to help others, but this task has a significant weight associated with it. Sadly, the mental anguish may lead some physicians to tell hopeful doctors that they should turn away and pursue a different occupation forgetting the excitement and enthusiasm they once felt. 

Naturally, over the course of a time period there are certain parts of our lives that change. One day you fall asleep at 20 years old, and the next day you wake up 21, now considered legally responsible enough to drink, gamble or even adopt a child. In contrast, the road to becoming a doctor is a long series of intentional and mindful decisions. Few of these decisions are big, some are medium and unlike the television shows most are small and boring. If you’re reading this you may wish, as I think I did at times, that we could instantaneously wake up a physician. But, the beauty in becoming a physician is in transforming into the version of yourself that will best fulfill this life of service. This becoming requires sacrifices in the form of no; no to certain parties, trips, weddings, and relationships. Instead, one will say yes to long, unappreciated and unapologetic hours with concomitant late nights in windowless rooms surrounded by books instead of people and silence instead of noise. Sometimes, I said yes to the no decisions and years later had to work much harder to make up for those responses. Furthermore, there are also decisions one will need to make during moments where we are no longer in control. 

Writer Anne Lamott, once penned, “When God is going to do something wonderful, he always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, he starts with an impossibility.”

From a post-baccalaureate, non-traditional, student studying in a Starbucks coffee shop in Manassas, Virginia to addressing the audience as student body president at the Ohio State University College of Medicine graduation I had to navigate my failures to arrive at my successes. However, each piece of adversity I faced sculpted me into a more compassionate and understanding person and ultimately a better physician.

The first African American patient I treated, sixty-years in age, told me he had never seen a physician who looked like me—like us he meant.

If this dream will make you happy and give you the life you desire, then this field is for you. No one can answer this question for you, and no one should. The time will go by regardless. One day I walked into the auditorium for my first medical school course. The next, I was performing a nasal intubation in a patient with severe Down’s Syndrome readying the patient for the dentistry team to extract his diseased teeth. There is nothing like what I see or do on a daily basis. It is simply amazing, frightful, enlightening and humbling all in the same breath. As I said before, “Yes, it is worth it.” But, it’s up to you to decide that for yourself.

Commentary: Father’s Day and the moments stolen from too many black families

Fatherhood, medicine, Mentorship, Race

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, June 18th (online) & June 19th (in print), 2020

I once attended a funeral where the pastor asked the audience, “How do you continue to believe in God when your father has been taken from you?” I did not have an answer as I tried to pat my eyes dry with the few crumpled tissues I had.

For me, this Father’s Day will be another annual occasion where I will pick up the phone and on the other end will be the voice of a kindhearted, compassionate and articulate man. I will wish him a happy Father’s Day, and when I ask him for details of his plans for the day he will note that a day of relaxation awaits him. Next, he will inquire how things are for me with an unparalleled yearning, and once he has been informed of any new happenings an exchange of “I love you” and “See you soon” will conclude our conversation.

Yet for some, Father’s Day has become unrecognizable from the celebratory day it once was.

Ask Michael Brown’s father, Mike Brown Sr.

In America, black men are rarely seen as innocent and are sometimes even invisible.

Wearing my cloak of visibility — a doctor’s white coat — I kneeled on the ground recently with my head bent over in prayer and protest for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The hardened and unforgiving cement left me wanting to change the position of my knee to lessen the discomfort, but I refused. Out of my periphery I saw other protesters switch their dependent leg. Some stood up, while some began to kneel on both knees to soften the unilateral pressure on just one.

But some pain cannot be lessened. The image of George Floyd with the knee of another man pressing into his neck — the man’s hands casually in his own pockets as he balanced himself on Floyd’s neck — is one. “Please, I cannot breathe,” he cried out prior to calling for his mother. Floyd’s words reverberate those of another black male, Eric Garner, who in 2014 was killed under police custody while uttering the very same last message. This is another example of a transformed Father’s Day that will never be what it once was.

Ask Ben Garner — Eric’s father.

Growing up, my family went to church almost every Sunday, but especially on Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I’d be the last one to get up but after a shower and dressing in my Sunday’s best I would rush into my parents’ room —tie in hand. I would pass the tie to my father, and he’d stand behind me slowly crossing one end over the other. Then he would come around in front of me prior to securing the tie and sending me to admire the wonderful job he had done.

When I played soccer, if I looked to the sidelines there he was sporting his vest and transitional lens eyeglasses — the one where the lens changes to dark when one steps outside into the sun. I am sure those eyeglasses earned him the nickname “Mr. Cool McCool” by my teammates.

And, as I walked across the stage to receive my medical degree, I distinctly remember hearing, “Go Dr. J” coming from his seat. The joy of watching his son become a physician, when his own father could neither read nor write, is a moment I am sure he will never forget.

These are key moments that fill picture books, but for some families, those books will be left empty: Rayshard Brooks will not be there when his daughter scrapes her knee while learning to ride a bike. Ahmaud Arbery’s father will not see his young man become a father himself one day; he will forever be frozen at the age of 25. George Floyd will not be there to screen his daughter’s potential boyfriends as a rite of passage that encompasses being a “girl dad.” Michael Brown — 18 years old — had an entire future lying ahead of him with countless Father’s Days, but his father will only have the memory to replay of that smile that used to walk in the door — Skittles in hand.

We cannot go on like this. It has taken a once-in-a-lifetime mix of events: a pandemic, economic fears, political polarization and an untimely murder to clear the opaque lens through which society views us to see that we are and deserve more. This is the time to see the exhaustion in the hearts of black families who have to watch as another Father’s Day is altered due to racism and police brutality. And, we are tired.

Ask George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Jason L. Campbell, M.D., M.S., recently known as The Tik Tok Doc, is a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.