Reflecting on sacrifices of the past and creating stories for the future
What a year 2020 has been. I recall starting the year full of optimism. I don’t tend to make New Year’s resolutions anymore; over the years I have become more reflective and I add a few more items to my bucket list, instead. Like everyone else, I didn’t realise what a momentous year 2020 was to become.
The pandemic has brought out the best in doctors. It was a call to step up and many doctors gave of themselves selflessly, in some instances living apart from families, working rotas that stretched them physically, mentally and emotionally, and looking after patients that were way out of their comfort zone — as exemplified by some of our PICU colleagues who looked after adult patients.
But as the pandemic went on it became clear that there was something else that was very noticeable. As the daily numbers began to climb, they began to be accompanied by names and faces. Particular attention was being paid to NHS workers, and after a while came the stark reality that the overwhelming majority of doctors who died were either black or Asian.
I had conflicting emotions. I felt dejected. I also felt a deep sense of injustice. “Here we go again,” I thought, “what will the explanation be this time?” I felt pretty helpless and was in a cycle of work, daily briefings, endless news cycles and going to bed exhausted, without capacity to give my time and energy to anything meaningful that could contribute positively to ongoing conversations about why this was happening.
My family, friends and social media platforms were an invaluable support. Just as things began to look up, and plans were being put in place for restoration and recovery from the pandemic, I watched with horror as George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a policeman kneeling on his neck.
Like most other black doctors working in the NHS, I am not insulated from racial prejudice. I’m well aware of the statistics that confirm differential attainment in exams, poorer clinical outcomes for our patients, unfair workplace opportunities, harsher treatment by our regulator, and a whole host of other parameters. The data is out there, the measurements have been done, and we need to stop trying to explain away the reasons for this pervasive inequality and face the uncomfortable truth that the NHS is not operating a fair playing field.
This year, a spotlight has been shone squarely, very brightly and very publicly on race and discrimination within our society at large and on our NHS, which is so blatant that it can’t be ignored. Our College is aware of the data relating to RCPCH examination pass rates. The 2019 RCPCH exam pass rates for UK graduates was 80% for white doctors and 68% for BME doctors. While I applaud the initiatives, and the acknowledgement that our College has begun to provide, time will tell if these bear fruit and have their intended impact.
Black History Month has extra poignancy for me, this year, because of global events. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices and the stories from the past — and use these stories as motivation to create new stories for our future.
But I have to remain optimistic as the alternative is to believe that progress isn’t possible, and it is. Firstly, I’m optimistic as it is character trait that most neonatologists have — you’ve got to believe when faced with a fragile 23-week gestation baby with fused eyelids and weighing one pound that this baby is going to grow up healthy and make a valuable contribution to society.
Secondly, I am optimistic because for the first time I have been able to have really honest conversations with colleagues and my non-BAME friends about race, and what they can do to be allies in the discourse against injustice of any kind.
Thirdly, I am optimistic as I have reflected on the differing experiences my grandmother, mother, myself and my daughter have all had as NHS workers. Despite what has happened this year, I know my experiences have been better than my grandmother’s and my mother’s — and my daughter’s will hopefully be better than mine.
My grandmother, Ruby, came to England in 1959 as part of the Windrush generation that helped to rebuild post-war England. She didn’t have much formal education, but she understood the meaning of resilience long before it became a buzzword. She was my biggest cheerleader and was so immensely proud when I was appointed as a consultant in the same NHS trust where she had worked for 20 years as a cook.
My mother, Elaine, is a retired nurse who also worked in the same NHS trust where I now work. I have listened to their stories of undisguised racial bigotry and aggression, but these stories are interwoven with examples of tolerance and long-lasting friendships with people of all races and backgrounds. Their stories give me hope that the future for my daughter, who is a foundation year doctor, will be even better still.
Black History Month has extra poignancy for me, this year, because of global events. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices and the stories from the past — and use these stories as motivation to create new stories for our future. Black history is more than just a month of celebration when articles are commissioned; it’s got to go beyond this. My hope is that RCPCH will be a part of these future stories and contribute to a more positive narrative about race in the NHS.
Dr Ngozi Edi-Osagie is a Consultant Neonatologist at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust.
Originally published at https://www.rcpch.ac.uk on October 24, 2020.