Honoring the Stories of Black Women Physicians: A Collective Conversation Project
Jessica Restaino with Damali Campbell Oparaji
(interview transcript here)
Part of what draws me to obstetrics and gynecology is having a sense of what that
feels like to be not seen or to be not heard. I can identify with it but at the same
time I’m not going to just let the cycle continue. To the best I can, in my practice,
I open up that space to allow this person that I’m seeing who did not feel heard, to
give them that chance so that they can do that with me. And that may not on a
population level move the needle but—it’s enough for me if I just—if I help one
person—that’s enough for me. I don’t want to say it’s not important to have that population level implementation…but after twenty years there’s skepticism…I can’t
be sure the system is going to work…but I’m also going to continue to do the work that
I know how to do, giving one woman a voice.
–Damali Campbell Oparaji, MD (interview, 2/19/21)
Damali Campbell Oparaji and I embarked on a two-year, weekly conversation project at the start of the pandemic. At the time, Damali and I were both serving as board trustees for our regional Planned Parenthood affiliate and so had a history of collaboration around issues of reproductive justice. During the Spring 2020 semester I was teaching an undergraduate class on medical rhetorics and invited Damali, an obstetrician/gynecologist, to join us as a guest speaker. During that class, Damali talked about some of the ethics and deep challenges of her work in an under-resourced hospital in one of our state’s urban centers. After class the two of us sat in a nearby cafeteria and Damali talked about her longstanding wish to write about her experiences of medical practice and asked me to be a resource to her in such work. We had not at that point done more than exchange a kind of mutual willingness to continue the conversation. It would be mere weeks before the pandemic hit. My class moved into an exclusively online environment and Damali’s day-to-day work included navigating the hospital in head-to-toe PPE. As the pandemic worsened, Damali would periodically reach out and say I really need to talk to you about that writing project.
Our collaboration has since taken multiple forms: a workshop, conference presentations, and a drafted manuscript built around “ten stories of practice” selected from Damali’s extensive record of clinical experience, meant to foster conversation and reflection among medical students and early career clinicians. A hallmark of our work for two years was our weekly zoom conversation, recorded typically in the early morning as Damali drove to the hospital, her phone balanced on her dashboard. While our medium was initially a condition of the pandemic, it also became an easy way to stay connected amid our busy schedules. Along the way we’ve taken plenty of zoom breaks to meet in person to sort and think together about the many stories we’ve accumulated in our extended dialogue. We entered into this collaboration to share Damali’s experiences as a source of education and inspiration for others; ultimately, we recorded many hours of conversation, all stories from Damali’s medical practice, and with a shared understanding of the continued need for doctors’ stories as a necessary view from inside the institution of medicine. Alongside the need for these stories to be told, Damali has discovered that the process of sharing one’s experiences can also be quite therapeutic for the storyteller.
One of the outgrowths of our efforts has included a commitment to trying to replicate it with more voices. As a Black woman practicing medicine, Damali is among a critical minority whose experiences are often unmatched by professional peers. She endures systemic racism inside and outside of the hospital while also enacting clinical expertise, teaching medical students, and shouldering responsibility for patient safety. Given the dearth of representation of Black women physicians in many venues, including in the study of rhetoric of health and medicine (RHM), our goal in centering the stories of Black women physicians in this journal is to foster collaborations between scholar-activists and physicians that privilege the labor and expertise of Black women physicians. What we hope for is that such collaborations will not only highlight the existing and often radical work Black women physicians have long-performed in some of the most urgent clinical spaces, but also challenge the how/what/why of the subsequent, emergent scholarship itself. Accordingly, we are working to connect interested RHM scholars with physicians in Damali’s professional network who are interested in sharing a story from their medical practice. A growing archive of physician stories will be featured on the journal’s digital platform, offering a shift in genre and, we hope, for deeper work.
As a way of beginning, Damali and I have recorded a short conversation in which she recounts a racist encounter with medical residents who were under her mentorship. We organized this conversation around a brief, focused series of questions that greatly simplify my role as interlocutor and bring into highly visible relief the story Damali decides to tell. We recommend a similar format for other interviewers who would like to contribute to this archive. A transcript of our conversation is included with our video recording. As has always been the case in our many conversations, Damali’s stories represent composites—the accumulation of many similar sets of experiences over her twenty years of practice—rather than any singular individual, patient or colleague. Instead, what we see is a snapshot of lived clinical experience which deserves centering and study, and which stands to disrupt some of the roots of our work in RHM. Scholars interested in working to collect physicians’ stories for this project should write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dudley, Jessica, McLaughlin, Sarah, & Lee, Thomas H. (2022, January 19). Why so many women physicians are quitting. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/01/why-so-many-women-physicians-are-quitting
Howard, Jacqueline (2023, February 21). Only 5.7% of US doctors are Black, and experts warn the shortage harms public health. CNN Health. https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/21/health/black-doctors-shortage-us/index.html
Restaino, Jessica. (2021, February 19). Jessica Restaino’s interview with Dr. Damali Campbell Oparaji. Rhetoric of Health & Medicine. www.medicalrhetoric.com