UCSF Black Healing Day

By Dr. Denise Powell

Comprising roughly five percent of the physician population, Black physicians often shoulder the cognitive load of micro-aggressions and race-based violence. This creates a huge need for identifying, processing, and addressing these experiences. On March 5, 2021, “UCSF Black Healing Day” gave nearly 50 Black physician trainees, also known as residents and fellows, in a San Francisco medical institution the space and time to collectively mend amidst ongoing racial injustice and a global pandemic.

Months before Black Healing Day, on a warm and crowded June 3, colleagues and myself gathered in white coats and marched the streets of San Francisco in commemoration of George Floyd and to protest the premature extinguishing of beautiful Black lives. A sea of masked supporters understood collectively that our ancestors have been fighting violence inflicted upon our community long before we could walk, talk, or diagnose an irregular heart beat, and our fight against these injustices is not even close to over. In the words of the author/poet/activist James Baldwin in 1963’s, “The Fire Next Time,” “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they [African Americans] are free.”

These words continue to ring true; after we left the protest, we returned directly to work or home in isolation to prepare for another day in the hospital and clinic, while shouldering the trauma from the violence and hate that has impacted our brothers and sisters. We stood together in solidarity with and for our community.

Dr. Daniela Brissett at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020.

Lee Jones, M.D., Associate Dean for Students at UCSF School of Medicine sang his praise of Black Healing Day, “Dealing with the ‘news’ about racial issues, which is not news to any of us, while caring for others is additionally challenging. This day brought us together, overcoming the business and isolation of our daily lives; acknowledged our shared grief, fatigue, and anger; celebrated our resilience and individuality; and gave us connections to move forward as a community.”

As Black Healing Day commenced virtually on March 5, the faces of physician trainees appeared into Zoom boxes across the screen, along with sidebar chats ringing with enthusiastic exclamation marks, and vibrant, nostalgic background music chosen from the different participants beforehand, immediately setting the tone for the day. A video of the institution’s program directors then played, in which they voiced their and the institution’s support of this day of healing for trainees. Through the vision, advocacy, and foundational work and support of Dr. Tiana Woolridge, MD, MPH, founder of UCSF Black Healing Day and a pediatric resident physician with a firm dedication to mental health and wellbeing, the much anticipated event was finally happening.

Dr. Tiana Woolridge, pediatric resident physician and founder of UCSF Black Healing Day

“I wanted to give Black trainees space to get to know each other, debrief on shared experiences with trained mental health providers, and to participate in healing activities rooted in African traditions,” explains Woolridge.

To foster a sense of respect for ancestors who come before us and recognition of perseverance through adversity, Black Healing Day was created with the initial intent of being held during Black History Month but occurred one month after.

Woolridge elaborates, “My goal was originally to hold the event during Black History Month but the timing didn’t work out. I then realized how much this was a blessing in disguise – Black people should be uplifted, celebrated, and supported 365 days out of the year.”

The goals for this day were built out of her own experiences, in which this year’s first-year resident physicians, also known as interns, have had a unique transition from medical school to careers as physicians.

“Starting work as a resident in the middle of a pandemic and the attacks on Black lives was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. The hours of residency and the immense amount of clinical knowledge and skills to master is difficult even in the best of circumstances; this made it a seemingly insurmountable task. I’ve been able to find and build resilience through connecting with my Black co-workers, but the opportunities to do so have been very few.”

In a city of five to six percent Black residents, per the United States Census Bureau, a sense of togetherness, understanding, and being uplifted is important for the city’s Black community, including physician trainees who are either from the city or who moved there for training. In a 2021 survey conducted by Woolrdige prior to hosting Black Healing Day, of 42 Black UCSF residents, 65 percent of interviewees stated their mental wellbeing at the time of the study fell between “bad” or “very bad.” This survey also revealed that fewer than half of participants felt a sense of connectedness to other Black trainees within the institution.

Woolridge states that “Many programs were saying that Black Lives Matter and that they wanted to support the Black community, and I wanted to see action taken to support the internal Black community at UCSF. This event signified that saying Black Lives Matter was the minimum; that Black lives should be protected, loved, and celebrated.”

Black Healing Day created friendship, allies, and colleagues that otherwise would not have existed, defying the feelings of isolation that can come with being underrepresented in medicine. Throughout the day, we introduced ourselves, the different places that molded us, and the roots and experiences that either bonded us or made us unique. A range of emotions and feelings filled the virtual rooms, from surprise elatement of how many Black physicians filled the tiny zoom screens to exhaustion after a 24 hour shift to the feeling of much needed restfulness.

UCSF physicians participating in Black Healing Day

To center participants around their values and missions as physicians and people, mindfulness meditation was the first of many sessions where we had the opportunity to take this safe space and time to reflect on how we felt both within the past year and at that moment. In these different virtual spaces, participants answered the very questions that made many inspired and motivated to pursue a career in medicine with prompts such as, “What would your ancestors be proud of?” and “What does Black joy mean to you?”

After an afternoon of restoration, Ashley McMullen, internal medicine physician, as well as host and producer of The Nocturnist’s “Black Voices in Healthcare,” led participants in reflection through writing and discussion to foster their persona both in and outside of medicine, from identity to needs and everyday driving forces. This introspection was followed by an exercise in self-compassion, led by Woolridge. As healing through reflection, writing, meditation, and discussion ensued, emotions surfaced for participants.

Daniella Brissett, MD and resident physician, states she felt, “Being able to just ‘be’ as opposed to having to carefully perfect my every word; to feel unregulated, from the way I wear my hair to the way I dress, and still be considered a professional that not only belongs, but is given support to thrive, even for just one day, was .. well words can’t quite do justice, but it was simply beautiful.” She explains, “In an institution that has so long been and remains anchored in white supremacy, to feel the tides turning, even just a bit with the number of faces I saw that were similar to my own – laughing, celebrating, leaning on each other – for even just one day, brought me peace.”

Brissett is not alone in her thoughts. Through this ability to be free without judgement, the possibility of implicit bias, or the pressure to code switch also came the realization for many that there is an untapped community that could be utilized for strength and encouragement.

“I was asked to speak as a leader, but the overriding experience for me was of being a member of a strong, resilient, caring, committed, and talented Black physician community here at UCSF,” states Jones.

In the presence of new mentors, colleagues, and friends, participants were able to learn about new ways to practice mindfulness. This included small group sessions led by mental health professionals and special international guests, like Helen Marie, an African Kimetic Yoga and Intuition Mentor. Supporting Bay Area Black-owned businesses are essential to community building and stabilization as well, so businesses, like Black-owned plants and print shops, were purchased from for greenery and specially designed t-shirts as gifts to participants.

Plants provided by Roots, a Black-owned plant shop in San Francisco, as well as t-shirts, reflective journaling book, and iron-on patches provided by Black-owned Prideful Patchez for participants of Black Healing Day

Through surveys and feedback, Woolridge plans on making this an annual event and working to expand it to other institutions. In a post event survey that she conducted, 100 percent of those who participated stated Black Healing Day assisted them in reflecting and acknowledging the work they do for patients, while realizing they are contributing to a better world in which they feel valued and supported in these tasks.

“I would love to include even more people – expanding to Black attending [supervising] physicians, medical students, and other healthcare staff. We have so many incredible Black people at this university that all deserve this time to heal together,” elaborates Woolridge.

The interpersonal, systemic, and institutional health inequities that have taken toll since the inception of this country have been compounded by many factors that are directly related to public health issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. Through amplification of health-based injustices this past year, there is a profound need for healing for everyone, including those on the frontline. As the country works towards collective healing through vaccine and public health efforts, we can also share this event as one strategy towards supporting Black physicians. Being part of a health care system, we must ensure providers of all backgrounds and levels of training have the ability to recuperate adequately, especially when environmental stress creates a world in which navigating the healthcare system is only part of the battle for many.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: