How Culturally Responsive Teaching Showed Up In My Operating Room


The physician's assistant stood at the foot of my bed, her hands moving through the air like a spoken word poet mid-stanza, my mother and father on both sides caught up in her words.

She spoke with a slight British accent and a hint of Caribbean dialect. "Ms. Buddington, do you know what you're here for today?"

I did.

I, at least, had some idea...

For the last three months, I'd been researching my diagnosis of idiopathic intracranial hypertension- a rare neurological illness that predominately affects Women of child-bearing age, and mimics the symptoms of a brain tumor.

My eyes had suddenly become sensitive to the light turning into stars and flecks flashing across my vision, my head was always in pain on random days, and I experienced vertigo often.

After three examinations, an MRI, and a lumbar puncture, I found out that an excessive buildup of spinal fluid behind my eyes caused the symptoms.

That's a mouthful ain't it? It was for me too.

If it were not for the abundance of journalists covering the disproportionalities of people of color and medicine, I'm not sure I would have gone to the lengths that I did to decode the medical terminology used behind the constant rotation of hospital curtains. Doctors seemed fascinated with me, discovering that my condition not quite idiopathic and every professional had a question for me considering only 100,000 Americans currently live with IIH.

They wanted to understand the next steps the qualified medical professional was going to take, without sounding ignorant: What other medicine does he have you taking? Well, why would he choose that one? Oh, you're having an angiogram? Why?

I responded as best as I could, but honestly...I knew very little. I was horrified that they weren't as knowledgeable either.

I turned to Google, filled with terrifying medical journals, forums, and vague articles. I called friends in the medical field that had heard of my disorder but have rarely come into contact with anyone who was suffering from it. I frantically searched for Facebook groups that were sometimes reassuring, witnessing people asking the same questions that I had--knowing that I wasn't alone.

However, it still wasn't clear. None of my degrees, my ability to analyze text or multiple talents could help me decipher what was happening me.

Here is what I knew: Something was wrong with my brain, my vision was getting worse, and if I didn't rectify it I would go blind.

I said this to the physician’s assistant, who'd be in the room for my invasive procedure, and she launched into her cadence. I immediately recognized her stance; it was one I'd come into contact with at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in ciphers of my youth, and from myself while standing in front of my students--the blackboard a stage.

She explained that my brain was like a tree, "You could see the front and the back of it, you could look at the branches that extend from it, but you can't see the inside. We need to make our way into those branches, to view them internally. You've already had an MRI, which is like a 1950's television to a neurologist, but an angiogram is your brain in HD."

She went on to explain the process in figurative language, and for the first time in our three months of hospital visits, my parents and I understood everything clearly. It was the first time, in the alternating list of doctors with information that felt like crashing waves, that we felt comfortable, in the loop, and accepting of all that was to come.

Before she left to join the others waiting in the operating room, my dad asked her, "Are you Caribbean?"

The question was my father's way of gauging his ability to spot his brethren from the islands.

She smiled, "My family is Guyanese. I went to school in London and America."

She told us about family gatherings in her native island and connected it to the presence of my support system, she asked me about what I did for a living and where my family hailed from and used my interest as a lens. She was sewing what she learned immediately, constructing curriculum from things I identified with and she also assured us that she would answer any question that I had until it was time for me to go under. She smiled as she left and her warmth stayed behind.

Culturally responsive education and the liberal arts showed up in my operating room, despite years of being at schools where a one-size-fits-all curriculum is mandated. It made it's way to my the ears of my worried parents, despite being told that math and analytical/efferent reading were of the utmost importance, despite watching electives thrown out of the window months before the state test, and despite creative writing and fiction reading becoming one-off, supplemental initiatives.

Weeks ago, I came across @Oga_DoctorBlue's Twitter thread and became emotional. He said that black doctors are important.

He went on to show an example of codeswitching in the medical field and how it gave a patient comfort and understanding. I'd read years ago that the cognitive development of any child was dependent on the way in which the brain interpreted the environment.

Zaretta Hammond, a culturally responsive expert, says that when the brain gets information that it's not socially, emotionally, or intellectually safe, it sends distress signals to the body. An unwelcoming environment alone can cause anxiety. Hammond states that when working with scholars from marginalized communities, "we have to understand that their safety-threat detection system is already cued to be on alert for social and psychological threats based on past experience."

This notion is not only true for young scholars, but it is true for many PoC. It's true for me.

The physician's assistant that stood by my bedside was culturally responsive. It's a trait that's taught through ritual, reflection, empathy, discussion, mindset shift and so much more. This vital trait isn't one found on a bulletin board of pillars, a thematic menu for Hispanic Heritage month, or the University names we slap on to the homeroom doors.

It's a trait that is honed, only through intentional actions implemented with fidelity: It's taking the first-day surveys out of the drawers and using them to design an experience that genuinely correlates with your scholar's interests. It's bringing parents into the fold and using scholar traditions and artifacts to create the room and the instructional material. It's starting each lesson with a quote or a lens. It's allowing students to engage in debates and real conversation, without equating a little noise to chaos. It's using similes, metaphors, and anecdotes to engage scholars. It's getting them to understand that their own lives and the heart of the curriculum aren't that far apart.

It's a 30-year-old brown woman, who's told that she has a neurological disorder--surrounded by a sea of doctors that are not just fascinated with her rare illness.

Instead of only speaking in technical terminology, they go above and beyond bedside manner to assure that she understands all aspects of her diagnosis and future treatments.

It's an academic institution understanding that an emphasis on STEM and its technical language is equally as important as writing, language arts, love, and its synergies. We cannot afford to ignore the necessity of amalgamation. Lives are at stake, and I don't just mean figuratively. We can do this the right way or in the words of my scholars when I give them varied ways to express their understanding of the content: We can do both.