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Brain surgeon: 'If you're Black and a woman, nothing else is visible'

"Without hope, my life, my path, my journey, my accomplishments would not even exist," she says.
/ Source: TODAY

Dr. Odette Harris is director of brain injury care at Stanford Medicine in California. In 2018, she became one of the first Black female professors of neurosurgery in the U.S. Many people believed in her along the way, but she has seen first-hand how race and racism can impact a doctor’s and a patient’s experience. She shared her story with TODAY.

Dr. Odette Harris was born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. as a child.
Dr. Odette Harris was born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. as a child.Terrence McCarthy / Stanford University

The first and most powerful person certain of my success was my father. He nicknamed me “Star” as a kid.

I wanted to be many things, including a doctor, as far back as 8th grade, but my love of neuroscience blossomed in college. I had the world’s most amazing mentors. They created for me and allowed the most incredible opportunities to gain access to the field.

My mentors were not diverse — look at our field. Women and African-Americans are woefully underrepresented in the neurosciences. There were not a lot of people on my path who would represent a diversity of backgrounds — races, gender and ethnicity. But it’s testament that someone doesn’t need to look like you or come from the same background as you to be able to add beneficially to your path.

I definitely had naysayers. They come in so many different forms and can be truly detrimental to one’s psyche. The most lingering incidents in my memory came from people who didn’t even know who you were.

My husband jokes that my memoir should be titled, “No, I’m Not From Maryland” because of the number of times when I’ve had the “Odette Harris, MD” name card in a meeting and someone asked, “Oh, are you from Maryland?” Something as absurd as putting the initials of your state next to your name seems more plausible than the fact that “MD” stands for doctor. I can’t even tell you how many people ask that.

One time I was at an all-day meeting. There were only a dozen people at the table and I stood up to take a break at the back of the room. I was stretching my legs and one of the participants came over to ask me if I was going to be setting up for lunch. He truly mistook me for a member of the wait staff. This is somebody who I had been at a table with for five hours in intense discussions. There’s nothing more affirming that you are invisible. I felt immediately demoralized and my contributions felt devalued.

Another time, I was the keynote speaker and I was outside waiting for my car at valet and a person came up gave me their keys to valet park their car.

Dr. Odette Harris in the operating room.
Harris' clinical focus is traumatic brain injury.Courtesy Dr. Odette Harris

I was once scrubbing to go into the operating theater before surgery and the guy who was in charge of having people clean the rooms came up to ask me to clean a room. And I just said, “I will when I’m done with this case.”

In my experience, if you’re Black and a woman, nothing else is visible. Not the scrubs, not the suit, not the location, not the name and credentials — none of that matters if you’re blinded by that attribute.

Hospitals tend to be places where people are in existential moments in their lives — you don’t know what patients are carrying on their shoulders — so sometimes in stress, people revert to lesser versions of themselves. But when it comes from colleagues, it’s harder to process that.

Taken aback by loved one’s experience

My father was at a well-known hospital in New York. They saved his life, but I can tell you that race 100% factored into his care. I once got a call from a social worker who described my father as “non-compliant with his medications.” When you use words like that, you paint a picture of the patient that is deleterious to the record and ultimately to the health care that’s rendered.

My father had an attendant so all of his medications were given on schedule and he was not non-compliant. So I challenged her and asked, “What did you base that on?” What came out of the conversation was, “Well, just looking at him, he seems to be someone who wouldn’t be compliant.”

My father needed to be seen by a specialist in follow-up, but he was sent to the general clinic. I called to speak to the social worker to assess why he wouldn’t be seeing the specialist and was told the clinic is for those who are not insured. But my father is dually insured. The signifier of race is so powerful that they don’t even bother to check his insurance status — not that it should matter, by the way.

He was somehow ineligible for the specialty clinic because he was “uninsured” — but he wasn’t uninsured. The assumption was that here’s an elderly Black man who’s been hospitalized who is not compliant, per the chart, so what difference does it make what clinic we put him in? It’s 100% detrimental to his care, 100% detrimental to the care of individuals. I 100% believe it happens constantly. My father didn’t tell people his daughter was a doctor. He was going through these health care scenarios just as a person and the disparity in treatment was extreme.

I’m hopeful about the trajectory of things now only in the sense that I’m an extreme optimist.

From a realist standpoint, I remain concerned. When we’re on the other side of this movement, what are the repercussions, if any? We’ve had women in medical school classes at very high rates and yet we’ve not seen that trickle in terms of leadership — the number of deans, chief operating officers, chairs. We’re not seeing those numbers be representative and that’s just with gender.

But without hope, my life, my path, my journey, my accomplishments would not even exist. Because I had to be able to see what was unseen and I had to be able to hope in what I hadn’t seen before.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.