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Therapist says tolerance in the health care industry is a two-way street

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Kimberly Thomas-McPherson, a resident of Rex for 10 years, came to the Atlanta area in the late 1980s to begin a career as a respiratory therapist. Well-traveled and fresh from a tour of active duty with the Marine Corps in Korea and Japan, McPherson was ready to approach her new career with enthusiasm and an open mind.

However, when she started working as a blue code responder in an Atlanta area hospital 1992, she soon realized that everyone who came into the hospital didn't share the same open mind that she had developed while abroad.

McPherson was one out of a handful of black staff workers at the hospital at the time. As a blue code responder, it was her job to resuscitate patients who had gone "code blue," another word for cardiac or respiratory arrest.

One day, a few months into her job, she was the first to receive the page and was ready to jump into action. McPherson rushed to one of the hospital rooms to find an elderly white man in his late 60s suffering from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), a kind of severe emphysema.

"It's a horrible disease," said McPherson. She said that the man was on supplemental oxygen and blue from shortness of breath.

The man was in extreme stress and it was McPherson's job get him stable again. When McPherson explained to the man who she was and what she was going to do to alleviate his stress, he said something that she would never forget.

"I'd rather die than let a ... work on me," he said.

"I was shocked," said McPherson. "His nurse was appalled, but the family members [in the room] acted like nothing had happened."

About 20 minutes later, he started to fade and McPherson had to work quickly to save his life. When he regained consciousness a few days later, he told McPherson, "you should have let me die."

While several years have passed since the incidents happened and McPherson now works at a different hospital, she said that the health care industry overall still has the same problems.

"There are no black or white patients," said McPherson. "There are just people who are sick and in need of care. You have to treat them all with the same dignity, care, and professionalism."

McPherson, who grew up in Holyoke, Mass., a racially diverse community, couldn't understand why someone on their death bed could hold on to such hatred and racism. "In my neighborhood, their were Polish families, Italian, Jewish, white, black, Puerto Rican...everybody kind of looked out for each other."

She was even more surprised when she began to see racism in her workplace.

McPherson was working on one patient of Indian descent. Another respiratory therapist came up to her and asked, "is it with the feather or the dot?" - a reference to the patient being from India or native American.

"Everybody in the room thought it was hilarious except for me," said McPherson.

Another incident took place at the hospital in which a picture of Jewish children receiving care from a doctor was defaced by a staff member. White Klan hoods were drawn over their faces and "white party" was written on the childrens' foreheads.

McPherson, a single mother of two, said that her family has discussions about race on a regular basis. All of her brothers are married to women who are not black. Of her sisters-in-law, two are white, one is Thai, and one is Puerto Rican.

"Racism is a learned behavior," said McPherson. "Tolerance and acceptance need to be taught to children at a very young age."