Discrimination 30,000 Feet Above

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By: Dr. Ashley Denmark, D.O.

My experience of discrimination with Delta Airline Flight 2215 last week when I was not allowed to assist a passenger needing medical attention.

It was supposed to be a relaxed flight. I’m a mother of two young children with a husband busy in his 3rd year of law school. By the way, did I mention I’m a physician completing my 2nd year of family medicine residency? Extremely busy right? So you can imagine as a busy mom and professional like so many, I was in DIRE need of a vacation. So when my college friend decided to have a destination wedding in Hawaii last week, I seized the opportunity to book me and my hubby two airline tickets with Delta to paradise.

So fast forward to our flight Delta 2215 from Seattle to Hawaii last week. As I settled in to watch a movie and read a book, about 1 hour into our flight over the intercom, a flight attendant requested a doctor or nurse to report to front of cabin to assist a passenger. When duty calls it calls- even if you are 30,000 feet in air. Without hesitation, I got out of my seat and made my way towards the front of the cabin where I was greeted by two Caucasian women and a delta flight attendant. I quickly asked “What’s going on?” Then I stated, “I’m a doctor. How can I help?” Immediately, I was greeted by puzzled looks from all three women. The flight attendant asked, “Are you a doctor?” to which I replied “Yes.” My response only left a more puzzled look on the attendant’s face. She turned around and began to talk to another flight attendant. I stood there in bewilderment because someone on the plane was in need of medical assistance and no one was escorting me to the passenger in need. Finally, one of the Caucasian passengers who came to assist spoke and stated her and the other passenger present to assist were both nurses. Then she asked, “Are you a doctor?” to which I responded “Yes” …..again. She immediately responded “Well you need credentials to show you are a medical professional.” I gave a funny look but, remained composed and quickly quipped “I have my hospital badge which should be enough.” At this time the flight attendant turned around to address us again.  She inquired from the two nurses what field of medicine in which they worked. At this point, I had grown annoyed. I had been standing for four minutes and had yet to see the passenger needing medical assistance. I grew even more perplexed as time passed. Why was the flight attendant addressing the nurses if a doctor is present and able to assist a passenger in need of medical attention? I interrupted the flight attendant’s discussions with the two nurses and stated, “I have my hospital ID badge which shows I’m a physician.” The Delta flight attendant continued to look puzzled then stated, “We have two nurses here who came first. You can have seat now and we will let them handle it. If we need more help we will come and find you.” Wait a minute- stop the presses! What just happened?!?! I advised that I was a doctor who was licensed to provide medical care. Instead of being escorted to the passenger in need of help, I was directed to return to my seat and told that the two nurses could take care of the situation.

I pondered to myself the appropriate manner on how to handle this situation. Should I address the elephant in the room- 30,000 feet in the air in front that of all these passengers? I opted to comply. I turned around and walked back to my seat. As I walked back I scanned the cabin. I looked for someone in distress, unresponsive wondering who was this person who needed help? Roughly 4- 5 minutes had nearly passed and no one had addressed the passenger medical needs that was urgent enough for the flight attendant make an overhead announcement. As I looked through the cabin I was mostly greeted with stares and whispers. At that moment the gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. Apparently the nurses and flight attendants didn’t think I was a doctor. Why else were nurses being allowed to take charge in a medical situation when a doctor was present?  Surely it couldn’t be the color of my brown skin? Healthcare is centered around group efforts from various medical professionals but, the doctor ALWAYS serves as the leader making healthcare decisions. So here I was, the doctor with 11 years of training being asked to take a seat and not partake in caring for the passenger in need.

As an African American female physician, I am too familiar with this scenario.  Despite overcoming and excelling academically and obtaining the title of Dr. in front of my name, I still get side-eye glances when I introduce myself as Dr. Denmark.  Commonly, I’m mistaken for an assistant, janitor, secretary, nurse, student, etc even when I have my white coat on; I’m called these names more frequently than I would like instead of Dr. Denmark. In these situations, we are often taught to be graceful and smile in the face of adversity out of fear of repercussions such as being viewed as “hostile”, “too sensitive”, or my favorite “you are misinterpreting the situation.”

Being a doctor is hard work.  Your services are constantly needed, you have a never-ending stack of paperwork, very long work hours, you are constantly an emotional support for patients during their most trying times. But, being an African American doctor is many times harder with the adversity we face on frequent basis. We are constantly overlooked, questioned, doubted and find ourselves in situations where we are working twice as hard as other non-African American Doctors just to prove we are good enough to be called doctors. Well enough is enough. I feel it’s time to share the discrimination I have faced as an African American doctor.  I’m sure I’m not alone and there are many other African American doctors like me who have endured discrimination in silence. Often time we have to face this adversity with class and grace- never breaking a sweat and holding in our frustration as people treat us unjustly all because of the color of our skin.

But this is 2016 not 1960. It’s time for Americans who practice these kinds of behaviors to elevate their social consciousness and realize that African Americans are just as equally talented and capable of holding any job in this land.  This incident with Delta Airlines just shines the light on how often times African American doctors and other professionals like myself endure discrimination.  We shouldn’t have to suffer in silence and continue to ignore blatant discriminatory practices as “misunderstandings”.   Any discrimination at any level whether, age, race, sex, religion should not be tolerated. To Delta Airlines, which serves a major corporation providing service to people of all ethnic backgrounds, ages and genders, I hope you use this as an opportunity to change the narrative and be an example to the American society to promote fair and equal treatment for all.

157 thoughts on “Discrimination 30,000 Feet Above

  1. Dr Denmark, I applaud and admire the class and grace with which you have displayed regarding this incident as well as the countless others that you have had to endure for no other reason than your gender and race.

    As a long time “high-valued” passenger of Delta airlines I am shocked, and deeply offended by the clear and overtly discriminatory treatment that their in flight customer service teams have recently shown to yourself as well as Dr. Tamika Cross. While I gave strong consideration to penning a communication to Delta after the incident with Dr. Cross, it is my highest priority after reading about the incident and your blog.

    Thank you for showing the class and grace for which you had the good sense to show despite the pain and humiliation you must have felt.

    Michael Smith

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  2. We are not viewed as individuals that are judged on our own credentials and merits. This can be seen for instance with the election this year. Bring up African-American concerns and everyone immediately starts discussing poverty, violence, and drugs. While not discounting these concerns, the reality is that most African-Americans do not live in poverty. Most of us are just regular hard workers and professionals. Any accomplishments and authority are undercut by this constant narrative that we are needy and impoverished.

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  3. Wow. All of the Delta staff in this incident should be fired. And the nurses should too, for not standing up for you. Unbelievable. I wonder what the person in distress and their family thought– did the person live? Did they suffer any permanent damage from waiting so long for care? Just wondering bc they could sue Delta for negligence– turning away a doctor’s offer of care.
    I am sorry this happened to you.

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  4. I’m sorry that you experienced this. I am a nurse & I think your comment, apparently the nurses didn’t believe I was a doctor certainly does not do a lot for physician- nurse relations and quite frankly I take in a contemptuous manner. From where I come from, with many years of ER experience I might add, we work as a team where we show each other mutual respect. We learn from each other daily. Perhaps that is not the way it works where you come from or perhaps that is not the way you relate to nurses in general. That’s a shame. I would like to know if these nurses actually said that to you or was it your assumption? If it was the latter, then please clarify as I think these nurses deserve at least that much Doctor!

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    1. Why are you coming on here to chastise this doctor about what she said about the nurses? She did not speak badly of them. But YOU could only give one sentence to her plight before going on a rant in defense of the nurses! Wow! Focus!

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  5. Wow, after these two incidents, if I was a doctor, and fly on an airplane, I’d have my credentials in my coat pocket ready to show the flight attendants immediately.. I would say, “I’m Dr. (your name), a “add specialty here”, and here is my Doctor ID card (is there such a card??), and then say “where is the patient”. Then what could anyone say to you at that point unless they were truly racist, or sexist. I can only hope that this experience does not make Dr. Denmark lose her faith in her fellow man. There are more of us out there who are decent than not. God bless you Dr…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Let me preface my comments by stating that I am a police officer and have been in law enforcement for over 23 years now. I am also white. Like many, I have been concerned with the racial overtones surrounding a growing anti-police sentiment, but as this story illustrates there are concerns that surround racism and sexism in many professions. Racism certainly exists, as does sexism. I think, however to deal with these issues examples of them must be articulated clearly and I believe Dr. Denmark articulated her very well. What has concerned me with movements such as Black Lives Matter, is that there seems to be a rush to judgment in most cases that assumes negative encounters are racially motivated. Some of the police shootings that the movement has centered around have been justified and certainly there are ones that have not been justified, but even those are not necessarily racially motivated just because the police officer made a mistake or acted out of malice. I certainly believe that there are people who are racist and that is true of people in any profession, whether it’s police officers or flight attendants. But this country needs to have serious intelligent debates about how to solve the problems of racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination and we can only do that successfully Buy being reasonable and not making blanket accusations about one profession or about one race or about one gender. Dr. Denmark I think did a wonderful job of illustrating her process of reason going through this incident and gave concrete examples that definitely showed some type of bias on the part of the flight attendants involved, whether those biases were against her race or against her gender may not be clear, but they’re definitely concrete examples that a bias was present. This is the type of discourse that we actually need to have for going to successfully address this problem.

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    1. As reasonable as your opinion is, it is redundant to those of us who experience some type of “-ism” on a daily basis. I’ve had more issues being a woman in my career than I have being Black. In a comment I made earlier, I mention that I have been an emergency physician for 21 years. During my career, I have worked in multiple ER’s(from rural to extremely affluent locations), while in the Army I was personal physician to Queen Noor of Jordan during a humanitarian visit to Bosnia, where I was deployed at the time and Chief of Emergency Services, I have escorted a patient on a Lear jet to Canada with a medical crew and been a ship physician for a major cruise line. Despite this history, I continue to be mistaken for housekeeping staff or medical clerks/secretaries. Although I wear a badge with my title and name clearly displayed, it doesn’t matter. A few patients still have a tendency to call me “Ms., Mrs. or ma’am” and not “Doctor”. Even after identifying myself verbally, I may still be asked to get a blanket, get them some food, etc., services they would never ask a male physician to do. Worse, my own colleagues are guilty of the same behavior. That is, assuming I am someone other than a doctor. It is still not clear to me in this day and age why they appear shocked once I identify myself, but they do. I’ve been patient and understanding. I’ve had the discourse and attempted to educate the ignorant. No more. I am not one who assumes racism or sexism whenever I encounter a problem. But if it exists, it exists. Unconscious bias, which I believe is what occurred in the cases of Dr.’s Cross and Denmark, is still discrimination. Those of us who live it on a daily basis, know it when we see it. For me personally, the offenders are nearly always Caucasian. It is enough to make one want to stop talking and begin to scream.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. This does seem like a ridiculous situation. How many people actually claim to be a doctor when they actually are not?! (I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen because there are delusional people out there) but the chances are if someone says they are a doctor then they probably are! And what was happening with the passenger who needed help while all this was going on? It was just a waste of (possibly precious) time! (By the way Dr Denmark you DO look like a doctor if there was a way for doctors to look!)

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  8. Dr. Denmark, I read about this experience then followed a link to your blog. I have no doubt that the experience you described was an example of racial bigotry. I haven’t read all the posts, so perhaps you covered what my comments include. May I Say that most people don’t know what a D.O. is. May I say that, for example, nurses with many years experience in emergency medicine would be equivalent to a MD or DO with little experience in emergency medicine. While you are correct that the MD is always technically the leader, most physicians will take their cues from respects and trusted nurses.

    One thing I don’t understand is your statement that you have 11 years of training but are a second year resident. Not sure how that math adds up.

    Also, on the airplane you weren’t using your license to practice medicine, not were the nurses using their licenses. You and they were acting as good Samaritans.

    Again, I don’t doubt for a moment your interpretation of the events.

    Thanks. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog

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    1. Whilst I agree with you that on the flight they were acting as good samaritans, hence they would be no protocols as to who to choose over who. The fact remains that someone has stepped out from their relaxation volunteering to help, they should not be made to feel humiliated and turned back to their seats simply for being in a position to help.

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  9. I am so sorry for this happening to you. I could ramble on and on, but it will not change your experience. I do know my children do not view people of race or religion like when I grew up. They are in their mid 20’s. I am so sorry. I hope if I was in crisis and on a plane and you were there, no one would question and question your credentials and look and let you assist. Thank you for being you and a doctor.

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  10. There are some crack-pot Dr’s out there who have lost their credentials for various reasons and it would scare me for one to be allowed to administer anything to me in the case of an emergency at 30,000 ft. For that reason I believe the airline should have any Dr. who would volunteer to help in an emergency on a plane to submit credentials when they buy their tickets and then their validity can be checked BEFORE the plane leaves the runway. That way Dr’s, like Ms. Denmark can help a person in distress without being distressed herself in such an inhuman way. Get a life Delta……….

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  11. I am an afro American female. I have been a nurse for 30 plus years. This type of discrimination exist every where. I watch a woman die because a white security lady would not allow me to do CPR on a unresponsive white woman. So I clearly understand your frustration. I cried for weeks. I may not have saved this lady but at least if I was given a chance I could have made a difference. People are not changing but getting worse. Discrimination is alive and growing. Dr. Denmark I applaud you for handling the entire situation with grace and professionalism. I hope that Delta really address this with their staff. I truly hope you have a prosperous career. I am quite sure you are an awesome Physician.

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  12. I was thinking that perhaps the doctor looked too young to be a doctor to the airline Stews being that she is still in her twenties and as stated a 2nd year resident. Also I wondered if the airline has criteria relating to who they select in emergencies that they must follow. Given the doctor has her years of training, but actual years of experience must be reduced to actual experience such as externship, internship, residency.The fact that the doctor has been licensed for a short time verses two experienced RNs (I guess they were RNs) we don’t know if they were nurse practitioners or not which could or not be the case.Perhaps because the doctor wasn’t an attending, they chose the nurses. We all look very young when we are in our twenties and many times people mistake us for people too young to be who we may be.
    Maybe it isn’t about the color card at all, note please that I said perhaps.

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    1. I think you are missing the point here. If you read carefully her account of events, there was no discussion as to what her specialty or years of qualification were. What has happened here is that she was judged as a book cover without even looking into the pages of the book! She also stated that she is a physician which means she has undergone her residency in internal medicine, worked for several years before opting for a 3nd residency in Family medicine.

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    2. Ms. Rolle, RN This is precisely why the Doctor should have been allowed to check the patient and discuss with the “nurses” – as you note, we don’t know the qualifications of the nurses either, be they RN, NP, LVN, or even nurses aides. If the criteria for determining if Dr. Denmark was denied the option of attending the patient rested on her being 1) a woman, 2) a young looking person, 3) a young looking woman, 4) vague interpretations of how much “experience” is sufficient to “be” a doctor, let alone a responder in an inflight emergency, then these are just as egregious as being judged by the color of her skin, which also may have been a factor.
      Given the fact that Dr. Denmark is a PGY2 resident in Family Medicine, she is required to be ACLS and BCLS certified by her program. She can initiate orders and give medication and treatment on her own, and yes, reviewed later by her attending. And yes, even though her training experience may be 2 years post graduation, her patient workload is likely to be higher in numbers per day compared to a nurses numbers in training per day. Dr. Denmark was denied the option of working collaboratively with the nurses to provide the best options of care to this patient.
      Bartley Yee, DO, retired DME, intern and residency program director.

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  13. I ‘look’ caucasianish until I open my mouth (Brazilian accent, even after 23 years as a US Citizen) and from all the years past, when I used to keep track of who, when, and how often I was called a ‘Mexican’ (derogatorily) Yellow Belly, Sand Jockey, Nigger, Russian, Phoney Accent Faker, and F**ng Stupid Moron that can’t speak English ( B.A. Arts in Education, Majoring in…English), until recently, when the stares and comments are so openly plentiful, one misses count. My tanned skin might ‘fool’ the deplorables a little, yet my mouth proves them their poor little suspicious minds correct, I am foreign born, of multiple racial backgrounds (Mediterranean-Jewish-Moor-Latino) and HERE TO VOTE THE HELL AGAINST THEIR HATING BIGOTEDLY PREJUDICED IDIOTICLY CHAOTIC ANTI AMERICAN views.
    Oh, by the way my semi caucasian kids LOVE diversity and they play with Latino, Asian, black, white, native Indian, brown, Muslim, atheist, Jew, christian, AND gay kids. Poor deplorables, your kids will be greatly influenced by mine. And mine will NOT be influenced by yours.
    My kids have more friends and a much happier life than your maladjusted kids ever could, and better moral judgement, and their non judgmental views, with that of their peers, is the future of our world. Just saying it 🙂

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  14. I am sorry that it happened to you. I completely agree with you on FAs actions. Suppose I was a racist and I wanted the best help possible. I would go for the black female doctor if everything else was the same. Why? Because they had to work so hard to get there, so they must be more talented than the others. I am just playing with logic but I really hope Delta responds in a formal manner.

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  15. I agree, but remember these are individual people making ludicrous assumptions not Delta. Thats what I dont like about the media spin on this as if Delta can or any company can control every behavior of every employee.

    Hopefully protocols are changed and employees are disciplined for such discrimination!!

    Like I tell all people be secure in who you are we all get judged all the time. Latino with button up shirt is he a gangster, black male all black clothes is he bad, white kid long hair tattoos must be a drug head, heavy person must not take care of themself, super fit person what a narcissist, bald older white guy what a creeper he looked at me too long.

    Kudos on being a medical professional continue to take care of your patients and let the stupid be stupid.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Another doctor says Delta questioned her credentials because she’s black | theGrio
  17. This is so maddening. I’m a very frequent flyer with Delta as I live in Atlanta. I’m also an Admin for the Delta Diamond Medallion Flyers Facebook page. Another member found your story and posted it in the group. There are a few FAs that are in the group and we also have the ear of Delta management during times of the year. Please accept my personal apologies as someone who highly supports, monetarily, this airline and also know that this is not going to go unaddressed by their “most important customers” (their phrase) as it is not acceptable. Thank you for your oath and I commitment!

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  18. Dr. Denmark reading this blog frustrates me. Also, an African American female, it’s amazing that the accomplishments you have made are not regarded in the same manor as your white counterparts. This is just shameful. T Stevens continues to interchange meanings of training and experience as well as discrimination and racism. Follow what the narrator is saying. She is not feeling slighted. She was not acknowledged as the doctor she stated she was. The flight attendants assessed who she was by what they saw. There was no background check or licensing verification. Rock on Dr. Denmark!

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  19. I’m an African American with 35 years military and professional experience in Information Technology. I was put on a remedial certification program last year. This is despite the fact that I had overwhelming positive reviews on the subject that I was required to re-certify on. This resulted because two white men complained in one of my classes. I filed internal and EEOC discrimination complaints. Because they always says you are just being sensitive, nothing really can be done. They want to make you think you are crazy when it they do it.

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  20. Dr. Denmark:

    Thank you for all your efforts to contribute and help those in need. I’m glad you’ve shared your experience. It will enlighten some and give validity to what many encounter in our own lives. You are gold — none of your hard work can be dimished by others.

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  21. Are you still in Hawaii? My girlfriend and I would love to take you to dinner. Also I have this funny looking mole maybe you could take a look at… But seriously, offer for dinner is genuine.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Dear Sister, I just keep your head up because what you have accomplish in life is yours. I agree with the other writer, you should have just taken charge of the situation. Show them who you are! Keep your head up!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I wonder if the impacted patients would consider action against the airline for PROHIBITING a physician (Dr. Cross and Dr. Denmark) from evaluating and/or treating them. I know I darn well would!

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  24. MD and DO are the SAME except DO get an additional 200 hours training to practices OMM which is technique to treat and diagnose a patient with our hands. Please refer to any medical board within the 50 United states or google which will confirm the above as fact. MD and DO’s train in the same residency programs.

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