Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Creative Graphic Art by Jeff Manning

Prologue:

I originally wrote this love letter in the form of an essay back in February. It was a piece that I authored to celebrate and honor the amazing Black women that helped to nurture and expand my passion for science, health, and advocacy. The words came so easily to me, and I was excited and proud of this composition. This piece expresses the gratitude that I have for not only the named brave and pioneering women below, but for the many other unsung, uncelebrated heroes like them. I also wrote it for the mentees like me who are still finding their path through a career in which they will be the first and only person of color and/or female. And, mostly, I wrote it as a call to action in order to push the needle forward in our open support and celebration of women of color. Women who are doing the hard work without equal pay, recognition, or opportunities to thrive and succeed while existing in spaces that can be openly hostile, blatantly discriminatory, unashamedly sexists, and regularly deflating.

But after I submitted the essay to several publishing sources, I kept getting a lot of the same feedback: “It’s a great piece, but we don’t have the bandwidth to publish it right now.” (A polite brush off.) Now, a few weeks out from that weekend I spent fervently typing and editing the essay on my laptop, I keep coming back to it. You see, I’ve been drowning in a sea of heartbreaking and infuriating stories that keep crashing in on me like waves from the media. Stories like JAMA’s health disparities podcast in which prominent editors recorded content for physicians that promotes a white-centric view of racism in America, one that prefers to think that racism doesn’t exist and using the very word itself makes it harder for (white) physicians to join in on efforts to address health equity. Then Meghan Markle courageously and openly detailed her long, emotional and harrowing battle to be seen, feel safe, and stay sane during her time embedded with the British monarchy, further highlighting the ways in which women of color struggle silently in the background with oppression, discrimination, and mental illness. Then a Georgetown Law professor was recorded complaining about how the lowest performing student in her classes year after year are the “Blacks.” As you can imagine, I am emotionally exhausted not only from this barrage of stories, but also from the teeming racist, white-centering comments and the staggering silence from would-be allies.

Artwork — Reslience by Cheyanne Silver

So, I decided to share my essay here on this platform, and include these opening remarks. I feel that as these heartbreaking (and often enraging) stories continue to surface, we can take each exposed misstep as a chance to address the real issues of misogynoir, social justice, and health equity in our community, as well as on national and global platforms. It’s the perfect excuse to finally recognize these issues and take actionable steps to rectify them. Leading and joining in on conversations and movements like America & Moore’s 21-Day Challenge will help us focus on addressing these issues and hold those with privilege and power accountable for helping to create lasting change. Not just for ourselves, but for the future Black and Brown girls and boys who deserve to live in communities full of heroes.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes

I don’t exactly remember when I stopped believing superheroes existed. It must have been sometime soon after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. I had lumped them all into a group of Beings that were invented and promoted by adults in order to make the world a little more palatable in the eyes of dark-skinned Black girl growing up in rural Mississippi. Like Santa, I completely abandoned the idea that heroes could be real, tangible beings in my life. Now, as I reflect on my past, I realize that I had a full legion of heroes uplifting, protecting, and fighting for me. I had simply missed them while journeying tumultuous towards a career as a clinician scientist. But I now know, as the famed COVID-era slogan goes, “Not all heroes wear capes.”

Looking back, the first real hero that comes to mind is Dr. Mary Davidson. She was my high school biology teacher and she did not play. She ran a tight ship and was quick to correct ANYONE, yes, AN 👏🏿Y 👏🏿ONE 👏🏿,who dared to address her without her hard-earned title, “Dr.” I remember her saying — “I worked hard to earn my degree and will not allow anyone to take that away from me by addressing me as Ms.” Not only was she my first real life example of #Blackexcellence (well before the term exploded on social media), but this Black woman with her advanced degree showed me what it meant to speak up and advocate for yourself, demanding recognition and respect. Covertly wrapped in the unsuspecting package of a barely 5’5’, curly haired, older women, Dr. Davidson was one of only two faculty members of color at my school. Knowing about my aspiration to become a physician, she took me on as a mentee and was instrumental in supporting my extracurriculars and application to college.

I came face-to-face with my next big superhero, Dr. Brenda Armstrong, in medical school. She was a well-known advocate for minorities in her role as Dean of Admissions. But before she was Dean, she helped to found the Afro-American Society in 1967 and organized students during the Allen Building Takeover in 1969 while attending university as an undergraduate. I remember my interview with her like it was yesterday. I met, one-on-one, with Dr. Armstrong for my virtual medical school interview. (An option offered at the time to applicants who were underrepresented in medicine students with limited financial resources.) During the end of our time together, she showed me a class composite photograpah of the most recently enrolled students. A beaming smile stretched across my face as I saw in that photo of 100 students dozens of Black and Brown faces smiling back at me. A few months later, I was enrolled in their MD program and witnessed, first-hand how she helped the school achieve unparalleled success in the recruitment, matriculation, and graduation of record-breaking numbers of women and under-represented minorities. This superhero was an advocate, social justice warrior, and leader by every metric and standard.

(Illustration by Ella Trujillo)

After medical school, I found myself under the tutelage of another superhero, the living legend Dr. Princess Dennar. She’s the first and only Black, female Med-Peds program director at the institution and one of very few persons of color in leadership there. During my residency, I learned from her pure and unwavering example how to find my voice and push for change. She was not only a champion for residents in her own program, but residents from other residency programs and medical students. She managed to remain brave, professional, and steadfast in the face of unwavering adversity, overt discrimination, and unending subversions. (An experience that is common to many POC in academia.) She challenged me to be a better clinician, leader, educator, patient advocate, and person. She did this for ALL of her residents and she did so while also advancing efforts to actively recruit residents from diverse backgrounds and foster an environment of integrity and inclusion in the program.

I now staunchly believe, and know, that heroes actually DO exist. And, because of the twitter storm that is #DNRTulane, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a superhero. I had to come to grips with the idea that the best superheroes usually come with tragically painful origins stories like in Superman’s case — he learns that he is the only one left of his kind trapped on an alien planet and makes the conscious decision to battle for humanity, using his superpowers for good.

As I reflect on the social, political, and health inequities highlighted in a post-Trump America muddling through a seemingly unending pandemic, I more earnestly recognize that the world is in desperate need of more heroes. Like a larger than life being who possesses Dr. Davidson’s unwillingness to yield to anyone who might minimize or overlook her; or, Dr. Armstrong’s perfect embodiment of the “reach while you rise” technique, using her position of power to ensure that there was always room at the table for other trailblazers; or, Dr. Dennar’s unflappable determination, as she staunchly advocates for patients and others, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.

To be truly worthy of the title “hero” is to be all of this and more. It means bringing your uniqueness, unashamedly to the table (and if there isn’t a seat, being sure to bring your own chair). It’s aligning yourself with allies who educate themselves on issues of diversity and health disparities in clinical practice, research endeavors, and administrative responsibilities. It’s facilitating and participating in conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and racism; and speaking up about policies that may perpetuate systems of privilege.

We all experience moments on the cusp of our awakening, our own origin story, ready to launch us on a path towards super herodom. All clinicians have it within us to don our capes and not only save lives, but use our powers and privilege to improve the lives of those well before they end up in the precarious predicament of a near-death experience. We can amplify voices. We can extinguish hate and injustice. We can work to educate, enlighten, and empower patients and peers alike. We can be someone’s Dr. Davidson, Dr Armstrong, Dr. Dennar, Dr. Khoury, Dr. Blackstock, Dr. Landry or any one of the growing list of strong physicians, who aren’t afraid of the often uncomfortable and sometime inconvenient act of speaking out against injustice. We can be someone who turns the quiet whispers of the marginalized, the forgotten, and the maltreated into loud roars for change, justice and equity!

My question — are you ready to take that first big leap?

Chioma Udemgba is a first year Allergy/Immunology clinical fellow at the NIH/NIAID in Bethesda, Maryland, double-boarded in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics.