Surgery department leads White Coats for Black Lives demonstration; takes concrete steps to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion

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By Josh Shepherd

The Department of Surgery hosted a “White Coats for Black Lives” demonstration on Thursday morning, June 11. The event, which was led by residents and faculty on the General Surgery Wellness Committee, was attended by over 100 people, primarily UK HealthCare providers and staff, by the “Second Breath” statue outside the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. 

Demonstrators knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the estimated time in which Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck before the victim’s death.

The White Coats for Black Lives event mirrored similar protests carried out across the country over the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a Louisville, Kentucky EMT shot by metro police officers during an alleged narcotics raid, and similar deaths of black citizens by police. It was also intended as a show of solidarity with the health needs of minority populations that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and other diseases.

Blik Statue Kneeling

In addition to the moment of silence and prayer, UK HealthCare personnel participated in candlelight vigils on Thursday and Friday evening at the “Second Breath” statue. The Second Breath statue was created by Holocaust and cancer survivor Maurice Blik to celebrate the moment after escaping death and awakening to a second chance in life.

Just prior to the public demonstration, the Department of Surgery sponsored a special Surgery Grand Rounds presentation featuring Dr. Stephanie White, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the UK College of Medicine. Dr. White spoke on a range of issues impacting academic health care institutions, most notably on the need for recruiting a racially diverse faculty and residents in training programs across medical disciplines. She also touched on the need for further research into health disparities. Dr. William B. Inabnet III, the Johnston-Wright endowed professor and chair of surgery, opened the Grand Rounds with some insightful introductory comments about current events.  Following Dr. White’s presentation, Dr. David Worhunsky, the newly appointed Chief Wellness Officer for the Department of Surgery, led an open discussion on race relations, social justice, and the current state of affairs.

In a Lexington Herald-Leader article covering the demonstration, Dr. Sandra Beck, the General Surgery Residency program director, said that she and her colleagues on the Wellness Committee considered it important to join with the national White Coats for Black Lives movement.

“We in health care, because of glaring disparities that have become apparent through the COVID-19 pandemic, realize that we have to be part of this change…to regain the trust of people of color in health care,” said Dr. Beck in the June 11 article.

Dr. Vashisht Madabushi, a PGY-4 resident in the General Surgery program, also commented that he felt the UK Department of Surgery plans to do more to improve and promote diversity.

At a virtual Department of Surgery faculty meeting later in the month, Dr. Inabnet expressed his appreciation and personal admiration to the members of the Wellness Committee for their leadership in organizing the White Coats for Black Lives event.

“It is important that we take this negative set of current events, learn from them, and develop a positive set of actions. Our actions will speak louder than our words,” Dr. Inabnet said.

The department chair then outlined initial steps Surgery is taking to ensure that issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) remain an important facet of its operational culture.

Praskash Pandalai, MD

Crystal Totten

Dr. Inabnet appointed Dr. Crystal Totten and Dr. Prakesh Pandalai as co-leaders of a newly created Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. The task force will be composed of representatives throughout the department. Their charge will be to seek out, investigate, and recommend best practices to enhance departmental DEI.

“We will rely on this task force to be a compass for where we go as a department with regard to activities and identifying opportunities for improvement of our recruitment and retention practices,” Dr. Inabnet said. “This type of initiative is long overdue.”

Issues of equity and diversity in health care will also be a regular feature of Grand Rounds presentations, Dr Inabnet continued. There will be a deliberate effort to invite representatives from organizations such as the Society of Black Academic Surgeons (SBAS), The Association of Women Surgeons (AWS), the Latino Surgical Society (LSS), and the Society of Academic Asian Surgeons (SAAS) to speak at the University of Kentucky.

Dr. Inabnet encouraged faculty members to join him in getting involved with these organizations, if they have not already done so. Each, he said, is a great source of information for ideas and best practices. Going forward, the department will continue to evaluate itself with regard to equity, diversity, and inclusion, he said.