Dr. Tamika Cross made headlines when she posted a troubling airplane encounter in a Facebook post: that she, a young black doctor, was turned away when she tried to provide medical care to a sick passenger.
“Oh no sweetie put [your] hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel,” Cross recalled a flight attendant telling her, before asking her for credentials and accepting help from a white physician. “Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it’s not right.”
She’s far from the only one. As Cross’s story went viral, more female doctors—many whom are women of color—shared stories of their own. “I identified myself as a physician and was pushed out of the way and told to step aside for a male RN to tend to the passenger,” wrote Dr. Amina Moghul, a doctor practicing family medicine. “I thought it was just me that had experienced this.”
Dr. Pamela Wible, a family physician (who herself has assisted in two in-air medical emergencies) began collecting stories like these. After posting about Cross’s experience, 50 female physicians messaged Wible with their own experiences. “I’m hearing from people who have airline stories, stories from motor vehicle accidents, stories from football fields, where the umpire didn’t believe a woman when she said she was a doctor,” Wible says. Sometimes, says Wible, dark-skinned women aren’t even recognized as doctors within their own hospitals, even when they’re wearing a white coat. “It’s our culture.”
Part of the challenge: only 2% of physicians in the U.S. are black women. “I have interviewed dozens of black women doctors,” wrote Crystal Emery, director of a new documentary called Black Women in Medicine, in a recent op-ed for TIME. “Time and time again they would share with me stories about how they were mistaken for home health aides or dietitians. People refused to believe a black woman could be a physician.”
Below are the stories from seven female physicians who say they experienced in-flight discrimination.
I was a practicing physician leaving Tampa on a flight to Atlanta after taking my family practice board examination, when an overhead announcement asked that if any physicians were on board to please proceed to the front of the plane. I was already in emergency medical mode when I arrived on the scene. I quickly introduced myself as a doctor, and without waiting for more of a response from the flight attendant than “really?” I got down on the floor face-to-face with a young woman in her twenties who was hyperventilating. I asked a quick succession of questions, was given clear answers and quickly determined she had a panic disorder, had her anxiolytic medication in her purse sitting next to her but hadn’t taken any. I had her take her medication first before proceeding, not wanting to assume that a panic attack was the problem. But before I could continue my assessment, two white women (who didn’t introduced themselves) knelt down on either side of the young woman and started peppering her with questions. When I asked who they were, the flight attendant pulled on my arm obviously wanting me to stand up, which I did, then proceeded to tell me the two women were nurses and that I could go back to my seat. I said no and turned back to the young woman on the floor. The flight attendant then said, more rudely, “Ma’am, please return to your seat.” “It’s Doctor,” I said, “and no.”
The patient, now having taken her Xanax and having become less symptomatic, thanked me and said she was feeling much better. The flight attendant thanked the nurses for their help, then smirked at me as if they were the reason she had recovered. I ignored the flight attendant and the nurses (who graciously stepped aside when they heard my refusal to leave) and went back to my seat only after eliminating the worst diagnoses and feeling comfortable that it was a situation of resolved urgency rather than an ongoing emergency.
I didn’t see the young woman again before she left the plane, but I walked past the captain and flight attendants as they shook the nurses’ hands and thanked them for their help, ignoring me as I disembarked. It didn’t bother me at that moment, since my mind was still on the young woman, hoping she was okay.
The nurses and I were about the same ages and all the same gender, so it wasn’t a stretch to think my treatment was due to my race. It wasn’t the first time my medical assistance was devalued or outright dismissed, and it wasn’t the last. And although it wasn’t said then that my attempted dismissal was due to my being black, it has been said quite blatantly and more than once in other medical situations. Even though my credentials and years of medical experience may not be accepted at face value in a future in-flight emergency, I still travel with a stethoscope in my carry-on bag ready to assist no matter the obstacles, because I am a physician, and that is who we are, and that is what we do.
A patient syncopized (fainted) right next to my seat. I identified myself as a physician and was pushed out of the way and told to step aside for a male registered nurse (RN) to tend to the passenger. I was so stunned, I froze for a few seconds before politely introducing myself to the nurse as a physician and recommended we work together. The flight attendant continued to ignore me and direct questions and offers to get help or equipment to the male nurse. I thought it was just me that had experienced this…
In August of 2009, I was traveling to Costa Rica. As the doors of the plane were closing, a passenger rushed onto the aircraft. Shortly afterwards, he had a near syncopal episode. The flight attendant asked if there was a physician on board to assist with the passenger. She made the announcement twice, at which time I approached the front of the plane where the passenger was located. She looked directly at me and inquired, “Are you a nurse?” I was confused by her question since she specifically requested a doctor, never a nurse.
I recall this incident so vividly because while I knew providing care for the gentleman was most important, I experienced such intense emotions. After completing four rigorous years of medical school, three grueling years of residency and exhaustive competency testing in the setting of being constantly disrespected, second-guessed and blatantly discriminated against, I still was not recognized as the doctor. What about me didn’t look like a doctor?
I asked her if she had called for a nurse, and it was at that point, as I saw from her facial expression, she realized the racial bias of her question. But, having been referred to as the housekeeper, social worker and medical assistant, maybe being acknowledged as nurse was a compliment. It was not received as such, however, since I am a doctor.