Black Doctor Wears Scrubs to Protect Himself

John Whyte, MD, MPH; Arturo E. Holmes II, MD


July 31, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

  • Dr Holmes, a Black physician, wears his scrubs outside the hospital to protect himself from racism and to be treated with respect, something he recently wrote about in the Washington Post.

  • When he was pulled over by police officers, Dr Holmes was wearing scrubs, which may have helped defuse the encounter.

  • As the only Black resident at his weekly didactic meetings, Dr Holmes shared his police encounter with fellow residents who encouraged him to tell his story publicly.

  • Growing up, Dr Holmes received medical care from a Black female pediatrician and remembers how warm it felt to be in her presence and how she understood him. He wants to provide that same feeling to his patients.

  • COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd have exposed the health disparities that already existed in Black communities.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD, MPH: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. Here's a staggering statistic: There are almost as many Black men in medical school today as there were 50 years ago. How does this impact the delivery of care, especially during a pandemic?

I read this editorial recently in the Washington Post authored by our guest today, Dr Arturo Holmes II. He's a urology resident at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. Dr Holmes, thanks for joining me.

Arturo E. Holmes II, MD: Thank you for having me.

Whyte: We've been addressing the issue of racial injustice and disparities at WebMD and Medscape. I wanted you to tell your story and read a line that fascinated me in your article in the Washington Post. You say, "I'm a Black doctor. I wear my scrubs everywhere now, seeking to preemptively exonerate my Blackness with my professional garb." That's a powerful statement. What do you mean by that?

Holmes: As we've seen in events that have shaken the country, there's a lot of unrest, especially concerning the treatment of Black Americans in relation to law enforcement. No one should feel the need to wear scrubs anywhere or wear any sort of professional apparel to protect themselves or be treated humanely in America.

Whyte: You're not supposed to wear scrubs outside the hospital.

Holmes: True, you shouldn't. That's definitely not what they were designed for. However, in uncertain circumstances, scrubs may be the only thing that can remind people that you are human and that you like to be treated as such.

Whyte: You tell a story how you were driving 10 miles an hour and you were stopped. Can you tell our listeners a little more about that story?

Holmes: About a year ago, I was on my way home, after leaving the hospital. I was really tired that night. I remember driving, and there was this car that was driving really slowly. I wasn't sure why they were driving slowly. It was kind of concerning to me, actually. So, I resolved to go ahead and pass that vehicle. When I did, the police car lights came on.

I pulled over to the side of the road. The police officers — there were four of them in the car — stopped me. The rest is in the article. They thought that I was trying to disrespect them. It wasn't a very friendly encounter, and I was actually concerned for my own safety.

At some point during our interaction, I could just see in their eyes that it appeared like they saw me for the first time. At that point, that's when the conversation changed, and I ultimately got to go home. But that's something that's kind of stuck with me.

Whyte: Did you tell them you were a doctor?

Holmes: I didn't tell them I was a doctor. I had on scrubs, though. So they could see, and they recognized that.

Whyte: You say, "Still I wear scrubs. I wear scrubs hoping that they'll serve as a reminder, just enough to give pause, forcing those who would judge or harm me because of my skin color to reconsider." Do scrubs give you a different identity?

Holmes: Scrubs don't change who I am. Scrubs may change people's perception of me. When I see my friends or other people I know, whether those folks are patients or family members or acquaintances, I have a rapport. They know who I am. I'm generally known as a fairly nice guy. But when I see new people, there are questions, especially depending on the environment and the circumstance. Like I highlighted in that essay, people may assume that I'm not a nice guy or I mean ill, when that is not the case at all. When I wear scrubs, however, that doesn't happen. It doesn't happen at all.

Whyte: Residents are pretty busy. You had a lot already on your plate. It takes a long time to craft an article. Why did you feel the need to write this essay?

Holmes: In residency, we have weekly didactics; we have a weekly conference. Since COVID started, we've had wellness check-ins at the start of conference each week. After the passing of George Floyd, it was brought to my attention that we'd be discussing him in a conference the next day. I became aware that I would be the only Black resident at that meeting, and I felt particularly compelled to share my perspective.

When I shared it, a lot of my co-residents responded favorably. Actually, they became somewhat emotional and felt adamantly that I should share this with others through publication. I wasn't initially going to publish it. I just used it as an opportunity to organize my thoughts. But after seeing their reaction and hearing how they felt, I thought, well, maybe I need to share this with other people.

Whyte: There are very few men of color in medical school. Tell us your journey to becoming a physician and your thoughts on how we might get more Black men into medical school.

Holmes: That's an excellent question. I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to the Walker School in Marietta, Georgia; was an undergrad at Mercer University; and attended medical school at Meharry Medical College. I'm currently a resident at SUNY Downstate.

Going through, matriculating through the education system, is challenging for everyone, but there are struggles unique to being someone of African descent. When you are interested in the sciences as I am, you may go to classrooms and not see a lot of people like you. There are fewer teachers that look like you or that are familiar with the struggles that you face on a day-to-day basis.

Growing up, I had a female African American pediatrician. I remember going to see her and how warm it felt to be in her presence and how she understood me. That's something that I definitely wanted to share with other people.

Whyte: Did you have mentors or role models?

Holmes: Yes. One of the most important mentors to me has been Dr Kelvin Moses at Vanderbilt University. I met him during my time at Meharry Medical College. The way that he sees the world and interacts with students and teachers really impressed me. I always reach out to Moses when I have to think about important decisions, especially when it concerns medicine.

Whyte: What advice do you have for young Black men who might want to go to medical school, study engineering, or attend law school?

Holmes: I'd tell them that there is a place for you. Not only is there a place for you, but we need you. Everyone needs you — not just your communities. People tend to think that prejudice is something that's limited to socioeconomic statuses or education levels or what people's intentions are. But that's not the case. The only way to show everyone or to communicate that is through action and to move forward and accomplish things ─ push forward and contribute.

Whyte: Has COVID exposed these biases and disparities?

Holmes: COVID has definitely highlighted health disparities, as far as the disproportionate impact it's had on African American communities. But the thing is, these things have always existed. These aren't new phenomena.

Whyte: Dr Holmes, I want to thank you for sharing your insights and for the courage to tell your story. We need to hear more of these stories to help bring about change.

Holmes: Thank you for having me.

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