Memoir focuses on race and medicine
In “Black Man in a White Coat,” Damon Tweedy, MD, uses memoir to grapple with the evidence that, in his words, “being black is bad for your health,” shorthand for the fact that many diseases are more prevalent, and more lethal, among people of African descent. That reality struck home when the author — then a physically fit, 23-year-old medical student — was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney disease. In the book, Tweedy uses this and other experiences to dissect societal issues of class and race and to show how people of color are disproportionately derailed by diseases and circumstances.
Tweedy writes about events of racial bias that are painfully familiar: the medical school professor who mistakes him for a maintenance man; the staff who assume a clinic patient is unemployed; and a hospital patient who complains, “I don‘t want no N-word doctor.”
In that case, Tweedy explores his own bias when he meets the foul-mouthed patient, Chester, and his daughter and grandson, both of whom wear Confederate battle flag T-shirts.
Driven to prove his medical skill and avoid racial politics, Tweedy works to stay focused on caring for Chester. The doctor-patient relationship thaws when Tweedy uncovers their mutual love of the Atlanta Braves. Tweedy further adjusts his view of Chester when he learns that the man had devoted his life to caring for his ill wife.
After multiple medical complications, Chester dies, and Tweedy must inform the family. Chester‘s once mistrustful daughter tells him tearfully, “Thank you for all you did for my daddy,” and the grandson says, “Thank you, Sir. My granddaddy liked you.”
Bonds formed. Stereotypes overcome. Lessons learned.
Tweedy‘s book covers his four years of medical school, the years of internship and residency training in psychiatry, and his early years of clinical practice. It also explores affirmative action, the intersection of economics and ethnicity, and the need for a person of color to navigate multiple worlds, which Tweedy describes as “double consciousness.”
In February, Tweedy spoke to medical students, faculty and alumni at Upstate Medical University. “These are incredibly complex issues,” he told a packed auditorium. “Be humble. Treat everyone as an equal.”
Tweedy‘s highly readable, thought-provoking book hit stores — and the New York Times‘ best-seller list— last fall. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a staff physician at the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina.
This article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Upstate Health magazine.