Discrimination 30,000 Feet Above

By: Dr. Ashley Denmark, D.O.

My experience of discrimination with Delta Airline Flight 2215 last week when I was not allowed to assist a passenger needing medical attention.

It was supposed to be a relaxed flight. I’m a mother of two young children with a husband busy in his 3rd year of law school. By the way, did I mention I’m a physician completing my 2nd year of family medicine residency? Extremely busy right? So you can imagine as a busy mom and professional like so many, I was in DIRE need of a vacation. So when my college friend decided to have a destination wedding in Hawaii last week, I seized the opportunity to book me and my hubby two airline tickets with Delta to paradise.

So fast forward to our flight Delta 2215 from Seattle to Hawaii last week. As I settled in to watch a movie and read a book, about 1 hour into our flight over the intercom, a flight attendant requested a doctor or nurse to report to front of cabin to assist a passenger. When duty calls it calls- even if you are 30,000 feet in air. Without hesitation, I got out of my seat and made my way towards the front of the cabin where I was greeted by two Caucasian women and a delta flight attendant. I quickly asked “What’s going on?” Then I stated, “I’m a doctor. How can I help?” Immediately, I was greeted by puzzled looks from all three women. The flight attendant asked, “Are you a doctor?” to which I replied “Yes.” My response only left a more puzzled look on the attendant’s face. She turned around and began to talk to another flight attendant. I stood there in bewilderment because someone on the plane was in need of medical assistance and no one was escorting me to the passenger in need. Finally, one of the Caucasian passengers who came to assist spoke and stated her and the other passenger present to assist were both nurses. Then she asked, “Are you a doctor?” to which I responded “Yes” …..again. She immediately responded “Well you need credentials to show you are a medical professional.” I gave a funny look but, remained composed and quickly quipped “I have my hospital badge which should be enough.” At this time the flight attendant turned around to address us again.  She inquired from the two nurses what field of medicine in which they worked. At this point, I had grown annoyed. I had been standing for four minutes and had yet to see the passenger needing medical assistance. I grew even more perplexed as time passed. Why was the flight attendant addressing the nurses if a doctor is present and able to assist a passenger in need of medical attention? I interrupted the flight attendant’s discussions with the two nurses and stated, “I have my hospital ID badge which shows I’m a physician.” The Delta flight attendant continued to look puzzled then stated, “We have two nurses here who came first. You can have seat now and we will let them handle it. If we need more help we will come and find you.” Wait a minute- stop the presses! What just happened?!?! I advised that I was a doctor who was licensed to provide medical care. Instead of being escorted to the passenger in need of help, I was directed to return to my seat and told that the two nurses could take care of the situation.

I pondered to myself the appropriate manner on how to handle this situation. Should I address the elephant in the room- 30,000 feet in the air in front that of all these passengers? I opted to comply. I turned around and walked back to my seat. As I walked back I scanned the cabin. I looked for someone in distress, unresponsive wondering who was this person who needed help? Roughly 4- 5 minutes had nearly passed and no one had addressed the passenger medical needs that was urgent enough for the flight attendant make an overhead announcement. As I looked through the cabin I was mostly greeted with stares and whispers. At that moment the gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. Apparently the nurses and flight attendants didn’t think I was a doctor. Why else were nurses being allowed to take charge in a medical situation when a doctor was present?  Surely it couldn’t be the color of my brown skin? Healthcare is centered around group efforts from various medical professionals but, the doctor ALWAYS serves as the leader making healthcare decisions. So here I was, the doctor with 11 years of training being asked to take a seat and not partake in caring for the passenger in need.

As an African American female physician, I am too familiar with this scenario.  Despite overcoming and excelling academically and obtaining the title of Dr. in front of my name, I still get side-eye glances when I introduce myself as Dr. Denmark.  Commonly, I’m mistaken for an assistant, janitor, secretary, nurse, student, etc even when I have my white coat on; I’m called these names more frequently than I would like instead of Dr. Denmark. In these situations, we are often taught to be graceful and smile in the face of adversity out of fear of repercussions such as being viewed as “hostile”, “too sensitive”, or my favorite “you are misinterpreting the situation.”

Being a doctor is hard work.  Your services are constantly needed, you have a never-ending stack of paperwork, very long work hours, you are constantly an emotional support for patients during their most trying times. But, being an African American doctor is many times harder with the adversity we face on frequent basis. We are constantly overlooked, questioned, doubted and find ourselves in situations where we are working twice as hard as other non-African American Doctors just to prove we are good enough to be called doctors. Well enough is enough. I feel it’s time to share the discrimination I have faced as an African American doctor.  I’m sure I’m not alone and there are many other African American doctors like me who have endured discrimination in silence. Often time we have to face this adversity with class and grace- never breaking a sweat and holding in our frustration as people treat us unjustly all because of the color of our skin.

But this is 2016 not 1960. It’s time for Americans who practice these kinds of behaviors to elevate their social consciousness and realize that African Americans are just as equally talented and capable of holding any job in this land.  This incident with Delta Airlines just shines the light on how often times African American doctors and other professionals like myself endure discrimination.  We shouldn’t have to suffer in silence and continue to ignore blatant discriminatory practices as “misunderstandings”.   Any discrimination at any level whether, age, race, sex, religion should not be tolerated. To Delta Airlines, which serves a major corporation providing service to people of all ethnic backgrounds, ages and genders, I hope you use this as an opportunity to change the narrative and be an example to the American society to promote fair and equal treatment for all.