After kneeling in silence for nine minutes, approximately the length of time that Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd's neck last week in Minnesota, doctors outside of University Medical Center displayed signs in protest against police brutality and systemic racism. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

More than 30 El Paso physicians took the knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds Friday morning, the length of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto the neck of George Floyd, killing him. 

Gathered in front of University Medical Center, doctors held signs proclaiming “Pro Black is Not Anti-White,” and “White Coats 4 Black Lives,” as part of a nationwide demonstration by medical professionals in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Participants wore masks and maintained social distancing. Dr. Nagela Sainte-Thomas, protest organizer and an emergency medicine physician at El Paso Children’s Hospital and Providence Memorial, said that as a mother of black children and as a physician, she could not remain silent.

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“That video of George Floyd, it was igniting. To see something like that as a physician, a cyanotic man, he was not getting air. Yet the people that are supposed to protect us are continuing to detain him in a manner that’s preventing him from getting air. As a health-care professional alone, you’re just like, what is happening? You hear his words. For me it was him calling for his mom. I’m a mother. I worry about these things for my husband, for my dad, for my 5-year-old little boy. And that was piercing,” Sainte-Thomas said.

Massive protests have taken place throughout the United States in the 11 days since Floyd was asphyxiated by police while being detained for allegedly attempting to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The four officers involved in Floyd’s death have been charged with second degree murder or aiding and abetting second degree murder. 

Sainte-Thomas believes now is a moment for El Pasoans to step up, take action and acknowledge the systemic racism that not only exists around the country, but here in El Paso. 

“People sometimes think because we’re so different than what you would think of as a typical Texas city, that racial tension isn’t really so high here, that in El Paso the people are really lovely — which they are, but there is racial tension here, definitely for black people here. Even as a physician, I have one of the highest professional degrees you can have and I’ve had children call me the n-word.” 

Doctors and medical staff kneel for nine minutes in front of University Medical Center on Friday in solidarity with a national iniative called “White Coats for Black Lives.” (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

Dr. Isela Ibarra, a pediatric physician at Sun City Kidz Clinic, participated in Friday’s demonstration in order to lend her voice to the nationwide movement.

“Watching the news, seeing what happened was very disturbing,” Ibarra said. “I just wanted to support this movement because it’s drawing attention to a very important issue, with disparities that exist not just in law enforcement but in health care as well.”

Sainte-Thomas said Floyd’s killing is the tip of the iceberg, pointing to widespread problems of racial injustice, not only within the judicial system, but also as a pervasive force that, both consciously and subconsciously, affects nearly every industry.

“Unfortunately, even people like Breonna Taylor, her whole story is silenced in all of what’s going on. The mere fact that her home was invaded and she was shot to death, it’s unbelievable! I felt like I had to take this moment and this passion and do something.” Taylor was an emergency medical technician in Louisville, Ky., who was shot dead by police after they used a battering ram to enter her apartment in the middle of the night while searching for a suspect. She would have been 27 years old on June 5. 

“My hope is that I invoke the same amount of passion and intolerance for this racial bias, not only in our judicial system but in our health-care system, that will create momentum here,” Sainte-Thomas said. “It’s happening in other cities and states, and I want it to happen here in El Paso. This is a great community. I love this community and I love serving this community, but I want this community to know that they ought to fight for us, to know that our lives are just as important.” 

Racial inequality is particularly evident in U.S. health-care through statistics like the maternal mortality rate. Black women are up to three times more likely to die during childbirth than non-Hispanic white women and Hispanic women, according to a new government report. 

“It’s scary, we’re living in a developed country, to have that high a rate of maternal death is sickening,” Sainte-Thomas said, pointing to racist medical history such as the Tuskegee experiment as part of why the black community has deeply rooted distrust of hospitals and doctors. “Most black communities, they would rather stay home until they are dying and have to go to the hospital, because they’re afraid that somebody’s going to do something to hurt them further or that will kill them.”

Sainte-Thomas said it’s time for medical professionals to stand up for racial justice, and she challenged El Paso hospitals to heed the call.

“I want you to hear us, I want you to see us — it’s time to stand up. I will always stand up for this community, as I hold it dear. But I need to know that my city and my hospital and the community that I work for are behind me, that they see the disparity, and that they’re willing to stand with me or in front of me, to fight for it.” 

Some hospitals have made statements in response to Friday’s demonstration by El Paso doctors. 

Dr. Nagela Sainte-Thomas, center, the organizer of El Paso’s “White Coats for Black Lives” protest, speaks about her personal motivation for joining the national initiative by physicians against racism and police brutality. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“Right now, our nation’s hearts are heavy by the senseless tragedy that occurred on the streets of Minneapolis last week. The Hospitals of Providence supports our physicians and staff who participate in peaceful gatherings and we support their message of unity and equality of human rights,” the company said in a statement.

R. Jacob Cintron, president and CEO of University Medical Center, sent a memorandum to all UMC staff on Friday discussing issues of racial justice surrounding the death of Floyd, and encouraging staff to actively work toward improving racial equality in health care and elsewhere. 

“Seek to understand the experiences of those around you; educate yourself about the pain they experience. If you have not been a victim of racism, consider yourself fortunate. If you have been a victim of racism, you know the sting, you know the pain that it brings. While I applaud those who are protesting for the elimination of institutional racism, we know that it is not going to change overnight. Behavioral changes in ourselves and relationships happen when there is empathy and understanding. Institutional changes happen when the voices of many are finally heard, bringing about a willingness to change practices. Together, we will continue to do our part by fostering an organizational environment centered on understanding, respect, and compassion for all.”

Las Palmas del Sol Healthcare said its parent company has begun matching employee contributions to organizations that promote social justice.

“HCA Healthcare has established a special matching program to support gifts from our colleagues to organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Black Lives Matter Foundation, the National Urban League and other nonprofits that support racial justice and address health equity for communities of color. The HCA Healthcare Foundation will match 100% of colleague gifts up to a total of $250,000. Additionally, HCA Healthcare has increased investments in strategic partnerships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and with industry-and-school-based associations to develop a diverse pipeline of health care professionals and leaders.”

Cover photo: After kneeling in silence for nine minutes, approximately the length of time that Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck last week in Minnesota, doctors outside of University Medical Center displayed signs in protest against police brutality and systemic racism. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.