Refuse to be Owned by Privilege

Today, after my 12 hours spent as a third rider with Greenville County EMS, I was confronted with a very humbling and sobering reality.  I have ridden on the ambulance about 10 times at this point, and I have seen a wide variety of presentations, pathologies, and socioeconomic statuses.   I have seen life through the eyes of first responders such as EMS and police in a variety of situations: everything from abusive spouses, to heart attacks, to suicide attempts, to hoarders, etc.  I have seen wealthy and poor, sick and healthy.  These varied experiences are the exact reason why today, I am wondering why my mind is having such a difficult time processing the things that I saw.  I wonder if the tender spot in my heart is a result of the shooting deaths, riots, oppression, protest, inequality, drug overdoses, terrorist attacks, refugees, wars, and political madness that are currently raging in our country and transpiring across our world.  The ubiquitous nature of news media and social media in our world today makes it challenging to find a moment to pause with our thoughts and consider the true gravity of events.  We are inundated by the stimuli of varied thoughts and ideas bound up in often inflammatory rhetoric that has to this point failed to advance the discussion or to prompt any real change.  However, today my mind is captivated, and for the first time I feel as though I need to pause to process the depths of the things I have seen and heard.  Today, I became aware of my privilege.

Now, I have been aware of my privilege in the past and of the blessings I have received to come from the family from which I came and to have been educated to the degree that I have.  I have helped in inner city missions and worked in low-income neighborhoods, but on this day, I stopped and evaluated the stories in a way that I had not before.  Our first patient was a chronic illicit drug user, and our last patient was a multiple amputee living in poverty.  In between those calls, we cared for a man who has epilepsy, works two jobs, and is going to school so that he can provide better for his family. We responded to an attempted suicide of an older man who lives by himself.  The sadness of the social situations pervaded the day more than the impacts of the illness.  In distinct dichotomy we cared for and transported a man in the midst of stroke who did not come from as hard of a background.  In all these situations, I felt the need to pause and consider where all of these people came from and how their stories brought them to a need for medical attention.  I have not faced such suffering or known such desperation.

I share these stories first to give context for the words that appear hereafter. The ideas expressed here were not born in a vacuum but come from the expression of the perspectives gained through the previous stories.  In light of the division in our world today, these words are not meant to generate further divisiveness, but are merely an expression of the war raging in my heart and mind.  I think we all can do better, and these words, I hope, can contribute to a better tomorrow.  At the least, I hope these words will resonate with those who walk in my shoes as well as those who have been given a much less fair shake in life.

Have you ever heard someone say they are “living the dream”?  I hear it nearly on a daily basis from classmates, teachers, and friends.  Rarely is this phrase delivered without a sarcastic tone, a mournful sigh, or a deflated affect.  The truth of the matter is that those who find themselves in the position I am in are truly living the dream.  Despite the pressure to perform and the difficulty of the task we have undertaken, medical school students are living a dream that so many people have never even considered possible.  We are privileged with the opportunity to learn medicine, to have good prospects for future income, and to have the social connections we are developing.  On a more fundamental level, we are blessed to not have to worry about what we will eat, if we will have worked enough hours at the end of the week to both pay rent and have food to eat, or if our homes are safe.  And not only are we privileged now, but so many of us have had a privileged existence for our entire lives.  We have never worried about any of these things.  As a caveat, in saying that we are privileged, I am not saying that our parents did not have to work hard or that we have had everything handed to us. I am saying that from the start, we were in nurturing homes, good schools, and positive social circles that have enabled us to reach our potential and experience the privilege of attending medical school we have today.  We have not known half the fear or struggle that so many of our future patients will have faced.

With this understanding, I would like to bring to the forefront another idea of privilege.  While we have the privilege to be in medical school and so many of us have had the blessing of a privileged upbringing, our truest privilege is to be trusted.  Due to our standing and education, we are trusted by patients with the most intimate details of their lives often in the darkest moments of their existence.  To borrow from a mentor, “they are not privileged to see us, it is our privilege to see them.”  Our patients do not owe us honesty, cooperation, or pleasantries. It is certainly nice to be thanked and appreciated, but ultimately our job is to care for them to the best of our ability according to our training.  Our greatest privilege is to be trusted to care for them.  And with that privilege comes an even greater responsibility to consider the humanity of every patient.  We cannot abandon our privilege to care when patients are unable to help themselves.  We cannot abandon our role as physicians.  After the many challenging patients we had today from complex backgrounds, I was reminded that the most challenging patients are often the patients in need of the most help.  To recall the words of Jesus as he spoke to the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The patients who are the most physically sick are sometimes the people who need the deepest care.  It is easy to get caught up in all of the medicine and science and forget that we are dealing with human beings.

While I offer no specific fixes to the injustices that ail our society, I hope that in these words I can offer a change in perspective that may just push the conversation in the right direction.  To my classmates and my fellow medical students, I implore you to not be owned by your privilege.  We must refuse to allow our training, level of education, and socioeconomic status determine the way that we look at the people we interact with on a daily basis.  To the healthcare profession, I say we must be better, we must consider what a privilege it is to be trusted and what a privilege it is to care for people in their darkest and most difficult moments.  To my country, I plead with you to not allow your beliefs to cloud your vision and to keep you from walking a day in the shoes of another before passing judgement.  We are often inhibited from seeing the human dignity, the weight of glory resting on each human soul with which we come in contact.  My eyes have been opened today to see my own faults in rushing to judgment, denigrating those I do not understand, and dismissing those I do not find as palatable.  The world would be a much better place if we could all show one another a little more mercy and grace on a daily basis.

Today I realized my privilege.  I know I must do something about it.  My hope is that these thoughts will percolate my practice of medicine, but even more importantly that these thoughts will make me a better member of my community.  I have so much to be grateful for, and these words do not even capture the half of it.


Ben Snyder

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio.  After graduating high school, I attended Liberty University in Virginia for my undergraduate studies and graduated in December of 2014 with a degree in cell and molecular biology.  At Liberty, I participated in student leadership as a Resident Assistant and Spiritual Life Director.  I met my wife through student leadership, and we got married in January 2015.  I have wanted to be a doctor since very early in life, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to study and learn at the USC School of Medicine Greenville.  It is my desire to one day use medicine in missions work and to provide care to the underserved.  I am excited to share perspectives and stories throughout my education on the blog.


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