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Navigating Politics as a Medical Student of Mexican Descent

Harry-Hernandez, Salem

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002967
Teaching and Learning Moments
Free

S. Harry-Hernandez is a fourth-year student, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, Connecticut; email: sharry@uchc.edu.

An Academic Medicine Podcast episode featuring this article is available wherever you get your podcasts.

Author’s Note: The name and identifying information in this essay have been changed to protect the identity of the individual described.

John and I met during one of my inpatient rotations. He was an elderly gentleman admitted to the medicine service for congestive heart failure. Sanitizing my hands outside his room, I heard the unmistakable sound of President Trump’s voice requesting “5.7 billion dollars for a physical barrier” along the southern border. Admittedly, I cringed. Since the 2016 presidential election and the popularity of the slogan Make America Great Again, I have been faced with clinical situations that have forced me to separate my Mexican heritage from my responsibilities as a physician-in-training. I entered the room wondering if I was stepping into a conversation about politics and the construction of a wall along the Mexico–United States border, which happens to be the region of America I call home.

John was friendly and boisterous. He sat upright in bed with his full attention directed toward the television and gestured for me to join him in listening to our president. The words “illegal immigrants, drug dealers, traffickers, gang members” reverberated around the room. I politely asked John to turn off the television so that we could talk. He did, and I started to obtain a history.

For a moment, I thought that we might make it through the visit without mention of President Trump or the wall. As I listened to his lungs with my stethoscope, he began to freely share his political views with me: “Finally, someone with the right idea. Building that wall and deporting all those people will finally set things right.” I am both cautious and intrigued when patients choose to share their views with me, and it happens with surprising frequency. “How should I respond to him?” I asked myself. It is customary during medical encounters to avoid discussions about controversial topics. Unprompted, John continued to share: “They’re taking our jobs and bringing nothing but drugs and crime. Everything will be much better once we get that wall up.”

I have a difficult time shaking off patient encounters such as this one. But I do not hold these comments against John, nor do I view him as a racist or a bigot. His comments concerned me because he seemed to see Mexicans only through the lens crafted by President Trump. I wonder what someone who supports the construction of the wall actually believes about Mexican people, ones here illegally and legally. I wonder what my classmates who support President Trump believe too. I am just as reluctant to navigate this topic with them as I am with a patient like John.

We are taught to do no harm, but my evolving conversation with John was filled with risk of doing more harm than good. The last thing I wanted to do was offend him or damage the patient–student rapport that I had established. “You know, I am Mexican,” I said abruptly. “Walls . . . deportations . . . everything being said about Mexicans is also doing a lot of harm.”

Silence filled the room. I wondered what was going through John’s mind after I surprised him with my identity. The truth is that the political climate in border towns like my home in south Texas worries me. It worries me how people are denigrating Mexicans, stereotyping them, and openly expressing hatred toward them. I worry about my family on both sides of the border, and most of all, I worry that we, Americans, are losing our way.

“Oh, it can’t be that bad down on the border,” John joked. I disagree. It is that bad, and it will only get worse should a wall be erected. I am troubled by the symbolism that walls inherently and historically brandish. The narrow view of Mexican people that has been circulated by the president erases the experience and sacrifice of the good, hardworking people who also come to this country from Mexico, people like my grandparents, who sacrificed tremendously to create a life in the United States.

I saw John regularly during his stay at the hospital. While I do not know whether he has had many interactions with Mexicans or Mexican Americans, my hope is that our handful of conversations, however brief, brought a distant, controversial topic a little closer to reality. On the morning of his discharge, I shook his hand, wished him luck, and started toward the door. Then John’s voice bridged the silence. “Whatever happens with this wall business, I hope that your family is okay.” Turning around, I smiled and gave him my thanks. I never sought to transform John’s political views—my role as a future doctor is to heal people like John, to judge his heart by its physicality and not its prejudice. However, I hope that because of our time together as people with different backgrounds and worldviews, John acquired a more compassionate understanding of Mexican people than what our president publicizes. I hope that we remember each other.

I am proud that I told John about my Mexican heritage. When appropriate, I will continue to identify myself as such to my patients and peers because, ultimately, familiarity reduces fear and illuminates the commonalities that we share.

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Acknowledgments:

The author would like to thank Zachary Morrison, Rashmi Pashankar, Filipe Camarotti, and Sonia Harry for assistance in the revision of this essay.

Copyright © 2019 by the Association of American Medical Colleges