As a trained and experienced psychiatrist, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who completed three tours of duty - Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait - I find myself struggling to process everything that has happened since 2020 began. Baghdad does not compare to the current dilemmas we are facing in our country.
My God! I am the daughter of parents raised in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era. I am a physician, a psychiatrist, and a mental health expert. I have been to two war zones, worked in the federal prison system. I have been managing and handling COVID-19. I got this, right?
I watched, like the rest of America, as another black male (George Floyd) was choked to death, this time held beneath a white police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes - a white officer, in uniform, who swore to serve and protect all. Who can I trust? Who can we, as Black Americans trust? To add insult to injury, two different autopsies performed on Mr. Floyd’s body yielded different results. One said, Mr. Floyd asphyxiated due to being under the influence and underlying medical conditions, although family and friends say he an athlete, a top competitor. A second autopsy, by the medical examiner, ruled his murder as homicide. These autopsies were performed by medical professionals, professionals like I! Physicians who took an oath and swore to do no harm. Who can we trust? Health professionals must play a role in the Black Lives Matter movement.
I sometimes find that people do not understand me, and ask why I talk about slavery, Civil rights, and Jim Crow. They see me but they do not really hear me or my story of pain and message of hope for the future. They don’t know that my mother and father were both born in the poorest state in the union, Mississippi where, as a little girl, my brothers and I would hide in the back seat of my father’s car while driving to visit our grandparents because the streets were pitch black hidden between fields of tall weeds and cotton. We were afraid of being stopped and seeing our father, who was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, murdered in front of our eyes, as were many Africans Americans whose brutal murders were told in movies and books about our history. I hated whenever I saw the sign and we crossed the state line into Mississippi. We would pray that my father’s car would not break down or get a flat tire. The fears of child, still the fears of an adult women. It sickens and frightens me that this continues to happen in 2020.
My first recollection of mistreatment growing up happened in Pre-K. We lived on a military base in New Jersey. I was the only black girl in the class. Every day at recess the other kids, all of whom were white, would play and leave me out. They would play Dukes of Hazard and because there was not a black girl in that show, I could not play. Every day I would swing alone or try to hang around them by standing on the periphery. But a year later, my father received orders to move to Germany. However, once in Germany, our excitement was met with hatred - hatred for America and not just black folks. But my parents did all they could to shield us and created a fairy tale for my brothers and me - we would go on Volksmarches, attend carnivals and festivals, go on amazing field trips. We made money as little kids by recycling my family’s bottles. It was our routine on the weekend to walk to the store and my oldest brother would collect the cash and split the money amongst the three of us. It was magic, but the fairytale ended one day as I was walking ahead of my brothers like I usually would. Our two black god brothers were with us this day. I was happy, eating gummies, and singing with my pigtails braided ever so neatly. Suddenly my oldest brother startled me. He yelled, Delvena move! I moved to the other side of the road, confused but also knowing that if my big brother tells me to do something, I better do it. I happily moved and began to sing again, happy that the weather was nice. I heard both my brothers yell the next time, VENA MOVE. This time louder and it sounded angry. Before I could turn to ask why, I felt an intense pain and lost consciousness. I remember my brothers at my side. They both lifted me and carried me home litter style. I could not walk, and my legs were bleeding. My scalp was bleeding. They told me not to talk. I would latter learn that a white, elderly German man on a bicycle ride his bicycle directly into my little six-year-old body. He intentionally rode his bike over me like I was trash on the side of road. He yelled obscenities - “nigger” - as he as cycled away. My god brothers ran after him, but he got away. And to no surprise, we did not find justice through the Military. My father was told by his superior officers to go to the local German police station. I remember my dad holding me in the air as he showed the sergeant my injuries that my mother cleaned and bandaged with love and concern. Nothing was ever done. They never caught the man.
But children are resilient. What happened to me as a child, and as I matured, prepared me for the micro and macro aggressions I have encountered as an adult and by witnessing the experiences of other African Americans, like the countless times a white patient calls me a nurse when I have been introduced as Dr. Thomas, and wearing a long white coat and credentials, which is the uniform of every physician in the hospital, not a nurse, which clearly denotes my education level and specialty. Bewilderment at being pulled over by the police outside of the hospital, where I worked, without just cause and detained for three hours. I am one of lucky ones. The visuals of the senseless killings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark, Sandra Bland, and many others gives me pause, and reminds me of a dark history, as a descendant of African slaves, who were once only considered three fifths of a person under the U.S. Constitution. We were property. That is why we shout to the rafters BLACK LIVES MATTER and pray we are heard because for so many centuries our lives did not matter, and our cries fell on deaf ears.
My own experiences often remind me of my father’s experiences as a black enlisted soldier in the US Army during the 1970s and 1980s and overhearing him talk to my mother about situations in the Army that were a result of the color of his skin. But as a human being and a trained physician, in 2020, I have worked to reframe my thinking so that I see the good in all people, especially white people and give them the benefit of the doubt. I know that it is not healthy for me to be skeptical about every white person. In thinking the best about people, I am not writing off boundaries. I remain careful and listen to my gut. People are self-evident. In time we learn their true intentions. I limit the sources of my information, the daily news. I do not engage dramatized news and stories. I also love others, genuinely. And of course, I walk the walk in being compliant with all of the things I encourage my patients to do – communicate effectively, have the difficult discussions, sleep, maintain a healthy diet, exercise, travel to see new places and create a new mindset, and I use my support network of loved ones, just to name a few.
I hope that I can set the example, as we as a nation work to heal our wounds and rewrite our history, a history where we are all treated equally and not judged by the color of our skin, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by the content of their character. And, hopefully, then, there can be peace in the land of plenty.