As a family doctor you hear a lot of comments that might be considered personal or offensive. We are taught to be non-judgmental, understanding, empathic and nothing but helpful. But, what if a patient crosses the line? Do you know where your line is?
Where is your obligation to your own integrity and to making a better society? Two decades ago, I learned this lesson that still resonates today.
One day in the late 1990s, an octogenarian I respected I’ll call Joe, a survivor or the Pearl Harbor attack, someone I considered a great American, surprised me when I asked him about it.
“You know, I think Hitler might have been right”, he said. I did not know what to say. I was flustered, offended and wondered whether Joe realized I was Jewish and had lost family members in the Holocaust. I chose to let the offense go without comment. This was something I would later regret. I continued to be Joe’s physician but moving forward did not fully trust him.
Several months later, another offensive comment came from a man I will call Bill. He was ill and achy and when I asked what was bothering him, Bill replied, “I feel like I have been beat up by a bunch of Ni—s”! Again, I was surprised and angry, but this time I replied, “Please don’t use that kind of language in my office”! In the future, Bill came close to using more racial slurs, but stopped himself and gave me a condescending look. He was not a nice man, and I grew to tolerate his visits but not look forward to them.
It struck me as odd at the time that I was comfortable pushing back on an anti-black comment but held back on an anti-jewish one. Something in my upbringing or my makeup made me reticent to defend my own people – maybe not wishing to make a fuss. I wonder if others have the same experience. I realize now that we have many opportunities in our lives to stand up to racist, anti-Semitic or other discriminatory language and behavior. Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination are still very prevalent in our society. Silence is tacit acceptance and acceptance leads to tolerance of this behavior which leads to more hate.
We need to call out discrimination in whatever form we see it whether in our patients, in our colleagues, our co-workers, our family or in our society. Ultimately, I think patients and others will respect you more if you hold them and yourself to a higher standard where everyone is treated with the same respect and dignity.
You should know where your line is when it comes to your own integrity. What message do you want to send?