March 09, 2023

By Dr. Elaine Batchlor


A good friend gave me a book that I keep in my office as a source of inspiration – “The Children” by David Halberstam. It’s the story of eight college students – including John Lewis – who helped lead the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

I keep this book in sight while I’m working because it reminds me of a lesson about how big systemic change often comes about: through the idealism of young people.

John Lewis and his peers had no reason to believe they could change the course of history. But they did. They changed history because they had the imagination to see a different future and the courage to help bring it about. Yes, they were scared. They knew that they risked physical harm to take bold action.

They also knew that the inequality and oppression they lived under was wrong. They staged the sit-ins and staffed the voter registration drives that started the civil rights movement. They believed in what was right, and they didn’t give in to fear or cynicism. In doing so, they made the world a better place.

The work of bringing equity to health care is a long road. When I feel discouraged with the slow pace and difficulty of system change, I pick up “The Children” and I feel renewed.

Today, I have two college-age children of my own who inspire me in the same way.

My son, Julian, is a pre-med in college and like many people his age, he has strong opinions about the changes he would like to see. I want to share our recent conversation about what inspires us. I hope it gives you a dose of hope too. (The conversation is edited for both length and clarity.)

Dr. Batchlor: I always hoped you would want to be a doctor, but I knew you also loved marine biology. What made you decide to pursue medicine?

Julian: I read a book that I saw on your shelf called “Black Man in a White Coat.” It opened my eyes to both the necessity and the possibility for doctors to work to dismantle racial inequities in the healthcare system. I felt angry reading about the many ways our health system treats Black people differently and the absurd barriers to care that patients face.

I read “Just Mercy” around the same time, and it got my blood boiling in the same way. While I admire Bryan Stevenson and the important work of public defenders like my father, I couldn’t see myself doing that work. Science is what I’ve always been best at and what I love most. “Black Man in a White Coat” helped me realize that I could use science to gain fulfillment as a doctor by helping people on a daily basis while advocating for systemic social and political change to make the world a healthier and more just place.

Dr. B: I’m glad you picked it up. I’m curious, what did reading the book help you realize that my work did not?

Julian: When I heard you talk about your work creating a hospital and health system in South L.A., I understood how important it was for the people in this underserved community to get care.  However, I didn’t realize it was reflective of such widespread, systemic problems. When I later saw you engaged in advocacy, writing articles and lobbying for bills, I had a front row seat to watch a doctor drive policy change. I realized that you really are a model for the kind of impact I would like to have.

I think my awareness of racism has helped me identify and relate to the injustices that other people face – it has helped me understand and care about other forms of oppression. This awareness has contributed to my drive to address other issues, like sexism and exploitation of animals. Oppression and inequity trigger an emotional response in me. I feel fired up the same as when I learn about racial healthcare inequities.

Dr. B: Can you tell me about the class you’re currently taking, Social Change and the Practice of Medicine?

Julian: Today we talked about COVID, including the challenges of getting people to take vaccines. We talked about the huge role primary care doctors play in talking to families about vaccines. Because of the way reimbursement is structured, primary care doctors make less than other doctors, so there aren’t enough of them. Raising their pay could help improve access to care. We also talked about vaccine hesitancy and how we can effectively communicate medical information. Unfortunately, the medical community sometimes causes distrust instead of building it.

Dr B: Yes, we need more than brochures; we need to treat people with fairness and respect.

Julian: Yes, it makes me think about Grammie, your mom, and the time I spent listening to her express distrust of White institutions, including the medical system. Her distrust was the reason she refused to get a COVID vaccine.     

Dr. B: Do you have ideas about the role you might play in medicine to help bring about the changes you would like to see in the healthcare system?

Julian: In my lifetime, I hope to see everyone in the U.S. have access to quality healthcare. I want to elevate my voice as a healthcare professional in support of policies like Medicare for All. Universal healthcare would be a more efficient way of delivering services and it’s the right thing to do. I see the profit motive corrupting the healthcare system and I want to work to change it to prioritize health over profits.

Dr. B: What’s one thing you think you and your peers can do to make a difference?

Julian: Personally, I find it inspiring when I see my peers organizing in support of progressive causes, groups like the Harvard College Democrats and the Student Labor Action Movement. On the other hand, I worry about apathy among people my age. Many young people agree on issues and post things on social media, but they aren’t actively working to create change.

I think that voting is the bare minimum you can do if you are eligible to vote. To create meaningful change we need to do a lot more. Get involved. Personally organize and join organizations to build grassroots political power. Advocate for change, not just occasionally when there’s an election, but continuously. That’s what I see you doing, Mom, and I find it inspirational.

Dr. B: Ironically, last week you and I had a disagreement about your participation in a campus protest. I admit that I was too quick to criticize you for protesting something that you felt was important. As your mom, I was worried that you might suffer negative consequences from your activism.

Julian: Yes, and I told you that even though I’m a naturally cautious person, I won’t stop protesting things that I think are wrong out of fear of what might happen to me. Taking action on issues I care about is why I want to be a doctor.

Dr. B: I’m optimistic about what you and your generation are going to accomplish, Julian. Thank you for giving me hope.

Category: Opinion