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'Being black can be bad for your health,' says Damon Tweedy, author of 'Black Man in a White Coat'

Damon Tweedy

In 2014, the Association of American Medical Colleges found that 4 percent of the nation’s physicians are African American. That’s compared with 13 percent of the total U.S. population. White physicians, on the other hand, make up 48.9 percent of the profession.

On Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” a physician who knows what this numerical disparity equates to in the workplace joined host Don Marsh on the show. His name is Dr. Damon Tweedy and he recently released his memoir, “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine.”

Tweedy is a graduate of Duke Medical School and Yale Law School. He is now an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and staff physician at the Durham VA Medical Center. His book focuses on two themes: his experiences as a black medical student and young doctor as well as the health issues that affect African Americans.

Tweedy said he recognized his difference as a black man in a white-dominated field from his very first year as a medical student.

“I’m coming to Duke from a working-class background in Maryland, a whole African-American community, and coming to Duke and feeling insecure and how I’m going to make it here,” Tweedy said. “You come in on affirmative action and scholarship and there are all these thoughts that go through your mind. About a month into that first semester, I’m coming back into the classroom from a break and a professor approaches me and in an angry irritated way asks me if I’m here to fix the lights.

“That struck me as an uppercut because you’re already insecure about your experiences, if you’re going to make it, and then a professor sort of in the way questioning you as well. It went further than that, it wasn’t just the initial mistake, because he followed up and said ‘If you’re not here to fix the lights, then why are you here?”

One day you’re a basketball star, another day you’re a criminal. But it’s one thing to happen from someone who doesn’t know you but it is a different thing when it is someone like a professor in your course who is in control of the next step for you.

When asked why he did not challenge the professor, Tweedy said that there are so many thoughts that go through your head when you experience stereotyping like that. 

“As a young, African-American man, I’ve experienced people sort of misperceiving me as different things all throughout my young life,” Tweedy said. “One day you’re a basketball star, another day you’re a criminal. But it’s one thing to happen from someone who doesn’t know you but it is a different thing when it is someone like a professor in your course who is in control of the next step for you.”

Interestingly enough, Tweedy would continue to run into that professor throughout medical school. As an academic standout, the professor invited Tweedy to work in his lab after his final exams. “It wasn’t a genuine excitement, it was almost like a disbelief that an African-American student could have excelled at what I did in his class,” Tweedy said. “It was bittersweet. Part of me was proud of what I’d done, but part of me was left with a bitter feeling.”

Credit Dr. Damon Tweedy
"Black Man in a White Coat," by Dr. Damon Tweedy.

That was 1996. Tweedy said that, at that time, Duke was in a period of transition in terms of numbers of minorities enrolled in medical school. He says that for himself, getting older has helped the perception of him as a qualified doctor.

“I still think younger students struggle with these things, especially when they get out into the medical ward, there’s still misperceptions,” Tweedy said. “But I like to think things are better than they were 20 years ago.”

Listen below as Tweedy recounts other lessons on race and medicine, as a well as the particular health concerns of African Americans, and how doctors can do better at engaging with their patients:

“Being black can be bad for your health,” Tweedy wrote in his book. He continued in-studio: “You look at the statistics, any disease you can think of, it is going to be more common in black people. The disease outcomes tend to be worse. This is a lesson I learned as a first-year medical student over and over again. Heart disease, diabetes, stroke cancer … it didn’t matter the disease, that’s the refrain you’d hear. And it is true. Life expectancy is shorter, infant mortality is greater … as a med student you hear that information but you don’t get the next step of why and what’s that about?”

The answers to those questions can be found in Tweedy’s book. For information on how the medical lives of African Americans are impacted by race, check out “For the Sake of All,” a health study that looks at just these topics

Related Event

What: St. Louis County Library Presents Dr. Damon Tweedy
When: Thursday, Oct. 15 at 7:00 p.m. 
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis
More information.  

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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