Note: This reflection contains descriptions of anti-Black violence, police brutality, and suicidality. Additionally, I wish to remain anonymous. Should you read this and put the pieces together, I ask kindly that you leave the pieces here.
In 2014 I found myself at the lowest of lows. Unexpected personal loss, isolation in my college environment, and nearly a decade of battling a mental health disorder left me unable to cope with life’s stressors. I sat in my car sobbing and aching more than ever when I got a call from an unknown number. Answering my phone through tears, I can remember the feeling when the person on the other line introduced himself as a member of law enforcement. The feeling? A moment of hope, protection, maybe even relief. He said he wanted to do a welfare check on me because a concerned person in my circle reported that my texts hinted at suicidal ideation. Divulging my location to him, he said he would be there soon. I recall waiting in my car, without a single thought about my safety in light of the approaching police vehicles. He introduced himself to me respectfully, then listened patiently to my comments. I broke down, telling him everything. The expression of genuine concern on his face was unmistakable. I knew he was there to protect me, and he even expressed hope that I would find strength to heal. He consulted with his partner, and they decided to take me to the nearest emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation. I asked if they would leave me alone, but he said no. As I left my car, I remember him reminding me to hide my Garmin GPS device from view. “Those get stolen a lot around here,” he said. Only the finest attention to detail and dignity came from that officer. I recall being more afraid of what awaited me at the emergency department than what it was like to get a ride in the back of a police car. Never once did my safety at the hands of those officers cross my mind.
The rest of the night flashed by in a blur. I sobbed, embarrassed that I had to wait in a hospital gown in the crowded hallways near other patients, some handcuffed to the gurneys. I felt naked, more ashamed than I could imagine. I was so emotionally distressed that I accidentally vomited on myself. I doubted I could ever become a doctor. This experience shaped me so deeply, and I am now grateful that it happened. Eventually, I regained my confidence to pursue medicine. I landed myself a job as a scribe in an emergency department. I was now on the “other side,” and seeing patients with suicidal ideation became a once-or-twice-a-shift reality for me. Writing down their stories became my job. I did my best to record their stories, even though I could not tell them I had once been in their shoes.
I showed up early to my 0600 shift one morning. The overnight doctor was nowhere to be seen. It was just me with a few nurses and several patients. I began prepping my workstation, and I peered up to Room 15. Inside, I saw a Black gentleman serenely sitting on the edge of his bed, peering back at me. We locked eyes for a moment, then exchanged bright smiles. I had a feeling he would be our patient, and it turned out he was. I looked to see why he was there. The tracker read:
“Patient had police called on him because his neighbors thought he was doing drugs. Possible use of PCP.”
I remember reading this and feeling frustrated and concerned that someone had called the police on this man, just because they “thought” he had been “doing drugs.” I knew we would be seeing him soon and hoped that we could clarify what happened to ensure that he had all his needs met. Realizing I still had 15 minutes before my shift started, I went to the break room to make a cup of coffee. As I was in the break room, I heard someone singing. I dolled up my coffee and came out, searching for the beautiful voice, and realized it was the same man I had just exchanged glances with. I hadn’t heard anyone sing in an ER before.
Suddenly, four or five police officers charged through the ambulance bay entrance. They must have been some of the same officers who brought the man in. I looked on, terrified, as they ran toward Room 15. From my vantage point, I could see the look of surprise terror that fell across the patient’s face as his melody was abruptly interrupted by the armed police officers closing in on him. He jumped in fright. It was hard for me to see what was going on; the view was nearly blocked by so many police cornering the man in a small room. Through the cracks of uniformed bodies, I could see the patient, still sitting on his bed, and I could hear his voice as he continued to sing. Then, without prompting, one of the police officers grabbed the patient, at which point the patient sang louder but did not resist. The others joined in, and I could see the patient’s body tense up as his arms were pulled behind his back, his legs pinned to the bed, and his long hair yanked down by the officers. He continued to sing, and the officers began shouting at him. They screamed “You’re resisting, stop resisting!” The patient continued to sing deeply, his very existence perceived as a threat.
The sound of a taser is loud. It has a piercing, cracking noise when it is discharged. I watched as the officers shot their weapon into the patient’s chest. His voice ceased, and he began jerking as his body absorbed the voltage. I watched in horror as the patient collapsed to the ground and appeared to lose consciousness. This all happened over the course of approximately one and a half minutes. The physician finally showed up just in time to see his patient writhing on the floor, then stop moving altogether. We rushed into the room, and the physician began demanding that the officers explain why they had used such excessive force on a man who was simply singing. The doctor ordered a stat EKG, explaining to me that the shock of a taser can cause cardiac arrest. The patient had not entered cardiac arrest, but he still would need to be admitted for observation. With no answer from the police, the physician exited the room, asking who had involved the police. As the morning shift began rolling in and the night shift began leaving, no one was able to pin-point who had called the police. No one wanted to take accountability for nearly ending a life.
I remember the absurdity of writing up the patient’s note. “Patient had police called on him by neighbors because he was suspected to be using recreational substances, possibly PCP. Patient began singing while in ED, police were called, and patient continued to sing… and then was tasered?” Or maybe, “Unknown member of the ED staff called police on patient for singing, and patient would not stop singing, so was tasered?” No matter which way I tried to write it, the racism I documented made no logical sense. Not one thing the patient did deserved this outcome. I told my physician exactly what I had seen, and finally we found and discussed the case with the night shift physician who was also the Medical Director for the ED. The Medical Director assured me repeatedly that he would look into this incident and figure out who made the phone call. I trusted that this egregious act of anti-Black violence would be handled swiftly and appropriately.
I still recall watching as the physician removed the two prongs buried in the patient’s chest and abdomen. I documented the foreign body removal procedure note, hoping that some form of justice would be served. Just as quickly as the patient had been brought to the ED, he was whisked away unconscious to the floor for observation.
I wish I knew what happened to this patient, but I don’t. I wish I had followed up with the Medical Director in detail, but I didn’t. To this day, I have no idea if any form of justice was served for this man, and I regret that I did not take more direct responsibility. Though I wished to maintain the utmost confidentiality for this patient’s case, I now realize that there were options I could have pursued to get more involved with reporting the mistreatment I witnessed. Though I was expected to be the silent scribe, I now realize that I should have voiced my concerns until these concerns were acted upon.
When we see acts of violence toward our patients, especially anti-Black violence, we must normalize taking direct, personal responsibility. We cannot assume that our higher-ups will take care of it for us. We must play an individual, active role in deconstructing anti-Black racism from our field. I sincerely hope that my Medical Director addressed this case with the urgency it necessitated, but because I stopped at hope, I was complicit in anti-Black racism.
I worked in that emergency department for another year, and I saw the same police officers extend the highest degree of patience and tolerance to people who did things much more threatening than singing. I saw the same officers get bitten, punched, kicked, spit on, and cursed at by white patients, yet never once did I see another taser deployed. I think back to the officer who stopped and talked to me, the feeling of protection I got from his presence, and I now realize the disparate double-reality which characterizes the interactions of racism, mental health, law enforcement, and medicine.
I urge you to remember this story moving forward, and to never delay your direct action when you witness anti-Black racism, no matter where you encounter it. We must uplift and honor Black voices. We must hear what they call for. We must listen deeply. We must let them sing.