No. 20: The time my patient called me a n*gger

7 Minute Read

Intern Year:

“Hey, feel free to leave early today; I can write the note on that patient,” I whispered to my co-intern, as the Cardiology attending droned on about a rare EKG finding. I was just arriving to work for the morning, but she had just finished an eventful 28-hour shift in the ICU, and was literally falling asleep as she stood on rounds.

“Huh?” She snapped awake and looked at me as though unsure of where she was.

I chuckled and squeezed her hand to make sure she stayed awake through my answer. “I’m saying, go home. You already presented all your new patients from overnight, and I can take care of the old ones.”

She mouthed back “thank you” as she scurried away.

I was in a great mood. It was a “short call” day for me, meaning that I would get off at 3 pm. I was already starting to daydream about the feel of the warm sun against my skin during my drive home later. I had the rest of the day planned out: I would get into a hot shower with Bob Marley playing from my phone speakers, and then get dressed for a date I was going on in the evening. It was a rare day when I could do things after work, and I was going to take full advantage of my time!

“Would that work for you, Oyetewa?” the attending’s voice pierced through my daydreaming and I was forced back to the present. “Can you go see this new ICU patient? He’s having trouble breathing, and is currently being moved over from a regular medicine bed.”

“Oh, sure!” I said cheerfully.

After looking into the patient’s clinical history on the computer, I put on my white coat, wrapped my stethoscope around my neck, and walked over to the new patient’s room. It was one of those rooms with three patient beds, separated by curtains so each patient had their individual space. I pulled the curtain behind me and gave the patient a large smile. “Hi, Sir! My name is Dr. Oye and…”

“Wait, are YOU the doctor?” He coughed as he interrupted me with an incredulous tone.

“Uhm, yes,” I said, annoyed. This kind of thing happened quite often. A patient would assume I was any type of staff member besides a physician. They would often say with surprise that I looked too young to be a doctor, or that they had thought someone else was the doctor (usually referring to the male medical students on rotation with me). “Like I was saying, my name is DOCTOR Oye,” I started again, “I’ll be the PHYSICIAN taking care of you while you are…”

“Oh HELL no,” the patient interrupted me again. I could hear him wheezing without even using my stethoscope. He was a fair skinned male in his mid-seventies, with a ruddy complexion and piercing ocean-blue eyes, his mustache and beard the color of freshly fallen snow. He propped himself up on his pillows as he looked at me disapprovingly, pressing a button on his remote to turn on a brighter light over his bed. “Hell no,” he repeated.

“Is there a problem?” I asked, irritated.

“Yes, there is,” he started, and then stopped. His facial expression was one of growing rage. He was silent as he stared at me.

OK, what is this guy’s problem? “OK, Sir, tell me what’s wrong so I can try to help.”

“JUST GET,” He started yelling, and then coughed and caught himself. He started again, more quietly. “Just get me another doctor. Please.”

“Unfortunately, I’m the doctor on short call in the ICU today, Sir. There’s no one else.” Why did I say ‘unfortunately’? I shouldn’t be apologizing to this ass hole! I glanced at his monitor. “Your vitals are not too bad right now, but things could get worse. Would it be ok if I ask you a few questions about your symptoms?”

“NO! I will take ANYONE else! Anyone but you!” He was visibly shaking at this point, his eyes beginning to bulge out of their sockets. 

“Why are you un–” 


For the next few moments, I felt as though I was outside of my own body, hovering over myself and watching myself react. I stared back at him, my lips in a tight line, shocked into silence. My left hand fidgeted with the seam of a pocket on my scrubs. My right hand began to tighten into a fist. My blood felt as though it was boiling. I started to sweat. 

“Did you hear me?” He asked. “Get me someone else!”

“Oh, I heard you,” I said, my feet glued to the ground. I wanted so badly to SAY SOMETHING to him… to go off on him… to yell at him… But instead I stood there and looked at him for another moment, and then turned and walked out.

I was learning that this was one of the many loads I would have to carry, especially as a black woman in medicine. I’m not simply referring to the emotional toll that comes along with the job, or even the extra emotional toll that comes along with racism or sexism. I would also be responsible for being the bigger person, taking the higher road ALL THE TIME. There was no space to feel the full weight of my emotions. If I were to “act out” in response to this patient’s racism, I would put my position in jeopardy, including other’s perspective of my professionalism and of my ability to perform under pressure. 

I went to find my attending, who was in the room with a patient. I looked in the room, and caught his eye. He saw in my face that something was wrong, and excused himself. “Is everything OK, Oyetewa?” He asked me once he closed the patient’s door.

“I…” I closed my mouth and really looked at my attending for the first time. He was a white male, with dark hair and a kind face. For some reason I felt uncomfortable talking to him, uncomfortable with the idea of telling him what happened. I was worried that he wouldn’t handle it appropriately… but then again, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted him to do.

“WHAT????!!!!” My attending exclaimed once I told him the story. He looked at me, his expression full of anger, confusion…and pity. I resented the pity, but I understood it. “Are you… OK?”

“Yes I’m fine,” I said, reflexively. “The patient is refusing me as his doctor so…”

“ABSOLUTELY NOT.” He said, and started to walk towards the patient’s room. “Come with me.”

He marched into the patient’s room and ripped back the curtain.

“Oh, thank God,” the patient breathed a sigh of relief as he saw my attending.

“Don’t thank God yet,” he growled. He pointed at me, “Dr. Oye is an outstanding physician. You have two options. You can apologize to her for your disgusting behavior, and then allow her to do her job,” he took a deep breath. “Or you can leave the hospital and go somewhere else. We do NOT tolerate that type of behavior here.”

“YEAH!” came the unexpected cheer of another patient in the room.

“BUT I… I’m sick! They said I needed ICU care! I could die! You can’t kick me out of here!” He gave my attending a pleading look, and I felt sick to my stomach.

“WE CAN, and we will,” I chimed in, holding back everything I truly wanted to say. Things like: F*cking racist prick! 

“OK let me call my family,” the patient said. “I need a ride. Get me the hell outta here.”

As we walked out of the room, my mind spun. He hates me. Literally hates me and knows nothing about me. WTF, are we in the 1800s? I was angry at the patient, yes, but more angry at myself for being so affected by his words. I knew people like him existed; I had seen people like him before. I remembered the time during medical school that a surgeon turned to me and said “Well… I’m sure at least ONE of the people he killed was a criminal,” referring to the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 in which 9 innocent black people were killed during a Bible study by Dylan Roof. I had even been called the “n-word” before once or twice (Yes. Unfortunate, but true). But this was different somehow… this patient would rather risk his life and leave the hospital than for me to even touch him. It was just… Wow. Wow, wow.

Forty-five minutes later, we received a page saying that the patient had changed his mind. He was going to stay. We went back to his room, and his wife was now at his bedside. She gave me a mildly apologetic look, and then shouted at him in a southern accent, “Alright, apologize to this nice lady! Gon ‘head, APOLOGIZE!

He looked at me and sighed, resigned. He whispered an almost unintelligible: “I’m sorry. I’ll stay.”

“I can’t BELIEVE you were gonna leave outta this here hospital coughin’ and a-wheezin’ like that! What’s gotten into you?” his wife began to rant as we exited the room.

In the hallway, the attending asked me if I felt comfortable taking care of him, or if I’d rather have him see the patient by himself. Although I would rather do ANYTHING else, I said I would do it. I couldn’t bring myself to give him the satisfaction of getting what he really wanted, which was a white physician. I would be the bigger person, AGAIN (I also made sure we added a flag to the patient’s chart, notifying all medical personnel that he was racist and disruptive, so people could be prepared in the future).

By the end of my shift, the patient’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he needed to be intubated and connected to a ventilator to breathe. At least he can’t TALK anymore. I gave him the care I would give any other patient, calling the pulmonary fellow to make sure nothing had been missed, checking on him at regular intervals, repeating his labs, and making sure his family knew what was going on.

When 3pm came around, I left the hospital feeling all the things. Annoyed. Sad. Proud of myself for not doing something I might regret. After driving in silence with the windows rolled up for a few minutes, I said aloud, “Girllll look… you deserve all the sunshine and happiness you can get.” And after I agreed with myself (LOL, I KNOW I’m not the only one that talks to myself, don’t judge me), I rolled the windows down and played “Buy U a Drank” by T-Pain as loud as my speakers could go (yes… yes sometimes I play T-Pain oldies when I need a pick me up haha).

I felt every ray of sunshine and every gust of wind that caressed my skin. And somehow, at that moment, it still felt like a good day.

Until next time,

Dr. Oye

3 Replies to “No. 20: The time my patient called me a n*gger”

  1. Pooh! Reminds me of when a patient described how his grandfather used to kill N***. I will miss those medical school rotation days when I could just walk out and keep my distance from patients like that. I am going to be a resident at the same hospital. Hanging onto God…


  2. Sigh …allathat! Someone said to me at the VA when he saw I was the doctor: “just letting you know I’m prejudiced against you” as if using the word “prejudiced” instead of “racist” makes it any better. I too decided to stay and care for him even though my attending (white female) said she could see him alone if I were uncomfortable. Ignorance is real and we will always have them in our midst so we just understand that and keep it moving. God is our avenger!


  3. Wow! Wow!! Wow!!!
    I’m glad it turned out well.
    So unfortunate that old racist folks are still around.
    I’m glad you did the right thing. As Michelle Obama said
    “when they go low, we go high”
    God bless you for doing a phenomenal job. You make us proud!


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