The Unspoken Fraternity

Stephen was built like an ox, his broad frame barely squeezing into the armchair he was  burrowed in. He spoke with a soft, baritone voice and was so polite it almost seemed  disingenuous. His glove-sized hand covered his face during most of our conversation, serving as  a barrier from each painful memory he recalled.  

Across from him sat my attending – a keen and beady-eyed psychiatrist of few words. She  carefully dissected through his story, surgically extracting the pieces of information that fit into  her clinical picture. Stephen teared up periodically throughout his story, sharing how he wanted  to kill himself because he was in so much physical pain. Although his tale was long-winded, he  came across as genuine and sincere. And about halfway through our interview, I noticed  Stephen repeatedly glancing over in my direction.  

Once his blatant staring became apparent to the entire group, he turned towards me and asked  what my ethnicity was.  

“I’m Egyptian,” I answered.  

“So, does that mean you’re a brotha?” 

“I’m North African, so I’m an honorary brotha,” I joked.  

His eyes lit up, he reached out with his baseball-mitt hand, dapped me up and boomed “MY  MAN!”  

I let out a smile. As people of color, this was the exclusive nonverbal fraternity that granted us  camaraderie in white spaces. It was our way of letting the other know, “I see you.”  

As he continued on with his story, I felt inclined to believe him, despite how questionable some  of the details were. But my attending wasn’t having it. She read right through his façade and  retreated to the team room to collect evidence before calling him on his bluff.  And sure enough, after careful review of his records, we discovered three other documents  from hospitals across the Salt Lake Valley that all said the same thing in big, bold letters:  MALINGERING.  

Damn.  

I quickly googled Stephen to see if anything he had told us was true. He wasn’t a former  champion bodybuilder. He didn’t have a daughter on a Utah college women’s volleyball team.  What I did find, however, were arrest records. And even more shockingly, I learned he was a  registered sex offender for having sex with a minor. 

Stephen was a fraud. Despite this, I remember feeling a moment of sympathy for him. I thought  to myself, “How desperate do you have to be to put on a show like this for three meals and a  cot?” But I think the thing that frustrated me the most was not that he lied to us. It was the fact  that to all the white providers treating him, they didn’t just see a drug seeker. They saw a black  drug seeker. And for these providers and doctors in training who have limited interaction with  black patients in our community, I grew nervous that they would form blanket generalizations  about black patients solely based on Stephen’s performance.  

But above all, I grew frustrated for allowing myself to be played in the first place. Because  Stephen was a fellow person of color, I let my guard down and empathized with him regardless  of what came out of his mouth. And that naivety led me to bias the care I provided him. So,  where do I draw the line? How do I balance my shared cultural sensibilities with patients of  color yet remain unbiased in my care for them? I don’t expect that soft spot ever to go away,  but if I’m to become a fair and just physician, it is something I must learn to do.

MED '20

Ali Etman, MD is a Family Medicine Resident at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix. Originally from Syracuse, New York, he enjoys playing pickup basketball, indulging his sweet tooth, and sharing his story through spoken word, rap and short stories.

Rubor Participation:
2020 Story, "The Unspoken Fraternity", web edition
2019 Story, "Snoop"
2018 Staff
2017 Short Story