Physicians, trainees and medical students from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis stood in solidarity with health care professionals across the country in reflection and commitment to improve the health and safety of people of color through the White Coats for Black Lives event. On June 5, 2020, members of the medical school gathered along Kingshighway Boulevard, where they stood with raised fists and homemade signs.

“As they lined Kingshighway,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, “some spilling into Forest Park, people driving by honked their horns and raised their fists out their windows.”

White Coats for Black Lives culminated in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd. “That’s the length of time a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck on May 25,” reports the Post-Dispatch. “His death has sparked protests around the country. The White Coats for Black Lives event was held in conjunction with other hospitals across the area and country.”

Members of the Department of Surgery were deeply impacted by the show of support from across the medical school and the St. Louis community. In the days following the event, department members reflected on the experience and how it will impact their involvement in addressing the public health crisis of racism.

Reflections on Racism and Our Responsibility to Enact Change

Timothy Eberlein, MD, Bixby Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery

Mary Klingensmith, MD, Mary Culver Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair for Education

Jessica Kramer, MD, Assistant Professor of Trauma and Acute and Critical Care Surgery

Nick Pickersgill, MD, Urology Resident

Julie Spray, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Public Health Sciences Division

Erica Traxel, MD, Urology Residency Program Director, Assistant Professor in Urologic Surgery

Paul Wise, MD, General Surgery Residency Program Director

From left: William G. Powderly, MD, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine & Co-director of the Division of Infectious Diseases; and David H. Perlmutter, MD, Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean of Washington University School of Medicine

Timothy Eberlein, MD, Bixby Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery

As leaders and stewards of the Department of Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, we feel compelled to make a statement about recent events in our country. We deplore the tragic death of George Floyd, yet another brutal and senseless act of racism. Mr. Floyd’s murder re-opens the all-too-fresh wounds from racially charged events right here in St. Louis, notably the tragic death of Michael Brown. We acknowledge the pain and fear that racism has caused and recognize how, as silent bystanders, we need to accept responsibility for our role in systemic racism.

The leadership of the Department of Surgery is sincerely committed to ensuring that all people, including Black colleagues, feel safe and supported while working in any component of our department. We emphatically embrace pursuing racial equity and inclusion in all of our policies and procedures and all daily activities, and we recognize that every part of our department needs to be part of the solution. In addition, the members of the Surgery Executive Council realize that we, despite our good intentions, have not been as inclusive and diverse as a profession as we need to be. We also acknowledge that systemic racism is all too prevalent in clinical, research, and educational activities.

We, therefore, are committed to engaging in honest self-reflection and understanding the current impact of structural racism in our healthcare systems environment, we are prepared to act to influence systemic change. We will redouble our efforts toward recruitment, retention and mentorship of Black trainees, faculty, and staff, in order to ensure diverse and well-prepared leaders in our field. We fully embrace the goal of providing equal access to all levels of patient-centered care for all patients, and ensuring we implement strategies to serve those most in need. This care encompasses excellence in education, prevention, and advanced surgical care, to be delivered in a culturally competent and compassionate manner. We will increase our investment to provide high quality and accessible care to communities of need, including our commitment to Christian Hospital and Siteman Cancer Center North County. We have created a task force to improve our education, outreach, communications, and navigation of patients, using the expertise of our Division of Public Health Sciences, in concert with our North County clinical surgeons.

It is our hope that we can use this most recent glaring example of racism as a turning point to reexamine our internal culture and systems, and make changes to address our own systemic, racist practices and policies. We promise to challenge ourselves and each other to be part of the solution and help heal the pain and fear in the Black community, and foster an equitable and inclusive society.

From left: Timothy Eberlein kneels alongside Michael Brunt, MD, Section Chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery (Photo: Matt Miller/Washington University).

Mary Klingensmith, MD, Mary Culver Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair for Education

The White Coats for Black Lives protest was very powerful in the sheer number of health care providers who attended, in solidarity for our black sisters and brothers who have suffered racial injustice for far too long in this country. I felt elated by the size of our crowd, but simultaneously humbled to see the large numbers of black citizens who drove by in their cars, honking horns, raising fists in the air and shouting support; I felt humbled because my presence felt so small and insignificant, yet it was taken—in part of the whole—as something so important and affirming to these community members who have not felt seen or heard. They saw me in my white coat, holding my sign (“Justice for Breonna Taylor”) and I saw them, admittedly in a way I had not before. I will hold on to that feeling, of being humbled by how my action in a faceless crowd meant so much and I pledged in that moment to do more in my daily life to more clearly see and more visibly support my black brothers and sisters.

Jessica Kramer, MD, Assistant Professor of Trauma and Acute and Critical Care Surgery

As I began my walk down Euclid, making my way towards the start location for the demonstration, my heart felt heavy, my brain felt tired and my stomach felt butterflies. Like most of our community, I have spent the last week watching the protests, working through my anger, horror and sadness towards the injustice black people face every day. I have been thinking about how I can be better and work harder to demand more of myself and my community. As I turned the corner onto Forest Park Parkway, I saw the crowd of people in white coats and scrubs, started reading the signs and posters with powerful messages, and most significantly for me, heard the horns honking as cars drove by indicating the solidarity and unity felt by the passers-by. As I got closer, I saw people in their cars slowing down, smiling and holding up fists in solidarity. For the first time all week, I felt hope. So, thank you to the passers-by and the community for inspiring me.

Nick Pickersgill, MD, Urology Resident

Black communities across the nation are hurting. Here in St. Louis, the city we serve, the story of racism and inequality is all-too-familiar. As an institution, as physicians, as leaders in our community, we have a duty to show solidarity with our communities of color. From desegregation of patient care to increasing representation of under-represented minorities in our workforce, we must strive for better. Now more than ever, we have work to do.

Julie Spray, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Public Health Sciences Division

I felt the incredible potency and electric charge of that demonstration, masses of stark white coats making their quiet stand of solidarity, witnessing the emotion, exhaustion, pain and appreciation of a community as voiced through the blasting horns of cars and trucks. It really struck me, hearing that emphatic response from the traffic, what a critically important opportunity that demonstration was for building relationships of trust between the medical community and black community. Such a powerful moment of alignment cannot be undervalued.

(Photo: Matt Miller/Washington University)

Erica Traxel, MD, Urology Residency Program Director, Assistant Professor in Urologic Surgery

As I stood at the demonstration in the hot summer sun with my isolation mask on, I felt suffocated. But I could remove my mask and breathe if I chose to. George Floyd was not given a choice. In his dying moments, he called out for his mama. And it breaks my heart as a mother of two young boys. I want, I need to make my city, my world better. And it starts with me, in my home, in my family. It’s not enough to be against racism. We must be actively anti-racist. Truly Black Lives Matter.

Members of the Division of Urology, from left: Hassan Alkazemi, MD, Urology Intern; Charissa Holesko, Urology NP; Nick Pickersgill, MD, Urology Intern; Nimrod Barashi, MD, Urology Intern.

Paul Wise, MD, General Surgery Residency Program Director

The COVID pandemic has created a level of constant unease and frustration that we have never previously encountered, exacerbated and undercut for many of our residents, staff and patients by the persistent, pervasive pandemic of racism that has further flared in recent months and especially in the last weeks, rocking and saddening all of us to the core. Participating with my (very privileged) family in the White Coats for Black Lives demonstration was humbling and inspiring, seeing what the power of unity and caring could have over hate. The silent homage of all those who stood with arm held high for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd’s suffocation for the same period of time brought tears to my eyes. Just as silence can represent strength and dedication and passion, I better understand how the silence of privilege (like mine) can further crush those who have been oppressed for hundreds of years. I know that we can do better. We MUST do better, or we have failed in our pledge as physicians and caregivers. Racism is a public health crisis, one we must eliminate in all forms. #AntiRacism

Continuing Changes

The Department of Surgery recognizes racism as a public health crisis—one that affects people of color in every aspect of life, and impacts our institution’s clinical, research and educational missions. Department faculty, staff and trainees are committed to pursuing racial equity and making continuous improvements to institutional practices moving forward.