A Black Physician Grapples With History
Published May 2021
COVID-19 has impacted certain racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. more than others, putting them at greater risk for getting sick and dying from the illness. While the COVID-19 vaccines represent a turning point in the pandemic, surveys show that Black Americans are less willing than Americans of other races and ethnicities to get vaccinated.
Here, a Northwestern Medicine physician shares some hard truths on how U.S. history has created a distrust of medicine among Black Americans, and why she overcame her hesitancy and got vaccinated.
Khalilah L. Gates, MD
Pulmonology and Critical Care Medicine
Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Earlier this year, one of my patients approached me and asked, "Dr. Gates, remember when you told me to wait a little bit before getting the vaccine? Do you still think I should wait?" From under my mask, I replied, "Yes, I did say that to you, but I don't still think you should wait. Please get the vaccine as soon as you can."
I am pro-vaccine because I believe in the importance of community and preventive medicine. However, the COVID-19 vaccine hit differently. In the moment, when my patient asked me for advice, the intersectionality of being a Black, female physician became front and center.
Throughout the pandemic, I watched people in minority groups die from COVID-19 at higher rates because of persistent health disparities. In December 2020, a means to the end was approved: The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), and Moderna quickly followed. The data was promising. As a physician, other than long-term data, I couldn't ask for more. I understand the regulatory processes of clinical trials and the importance of EUA of vaccines and medications during this pandemic. I understand how mRNA vaccines work. I get it; I can explain it; and it makes sense to my rational mind.
But as a Black woman, I wanted more, and I needed more, because that's the mark that history in medicine has placed on the Black community — persistent inequities and structural racism, the Tuskegee Experiment, Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells, and coerced sterilization of minority women, to name just a few.
Our fears are not without substance. I can talk to my colleagues rationally about the vaccine and its importance, but emotionally, I have struggled. I knew I needed to figure it out not just for me, but for my family and for my community.
With one patient, my decision became clear. She was my age with no previous medical problems but placed on a ventilator due to COVID-19. When I walked out of her room, I knew I had to be vaccinated because severe COVID-19 disease wasn't an option for me.
My entire family is vaccinated now. We are excitedly planning our first gathering since the pandemic. One of my aunts sent me this message: "Thank you for believing in God and trusting science. You swallowed your fears and stepped up to be vaccinated first, and we followed. I am eternally grateful for your guidance."
I know that trust in the medical system needs to be restored in its entirety. As a Black woman and a physician, I am asking my community to choose science. I know it's scary, and it has some risk. But so does the alternative.