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Fighting the Virus of Racism: A Letter from Baystate Health President & CEO Mark Keroack

June 02, 2020

Watching the video of George Floyd dying at the hands of the Minneapolis police served as yet another grim reminder that most African American men and women in this country have a different life experience than other Americans. That his death was caused by a department with a record of previous shocking killings and in spite of the efforts of two reform-minded Chiefs made the situation even more discouraging for those working to move our country closer to racial justice. Are we forever doomed to repeat this cycle or is there a way forward?

The incident has caused me to reflect again on the privileged life I have lived as a white male from an upper middle class background in America. I grew up in what was then the nearly all white Springfield neighborhood of Sixteen Acres, and my subsequent education did not put me in contact with many members of minority groups. I was not aware of the advantages I enjoyed, much as a person does not notice a wind at his back compared to one in his face.

It wasn’t until I began my practice in infectious diseases that my eyes began to open. Throughout history, infectious diseases have hit the disadvantaged harder than those from privileged backgrounds. It was true of cholera, tuberculosis, and AIDS, just as it is true today for COVID-19. As I entered infectious disease practice in Boston and Worcester, my patients with AIDS mostly came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; two-thirds were people of color. I got to know their families and struggles, and I visited many of their homes during the 1980s and 1990s. I got upset when my physician colleagues would come up with reasons not to see my patients in consultation, but eventually, I realized that if not for my experiences, I might have done just the same.

Despite the rage and hatred that seems to be advancing in our country, Baystate Health can take a stand for something better. We can uphold our core values of respect, integrity, teamwork, and lifelong learning, which are every bit as important in our lives in our communities as they are in our work environments. I condemn what happened to George Floyd, as well as the attitudes that led up to it, as wrong and unacceptable for our community. I want us to ensure a safe place for everyone – a place where caring connections can be made, both for the good of our employees and the diverse communities we serve.

Even though we as a country have struggled for centuries to combat the virus of racism, I do believe there is a vaccine of sorts to the problem, and it comes through respectful listening and engagement. To the extent that I have gotten to know people from backgrounds different from my own, I have come to appreciate them as unique individuals rather than mere representatives of a group. By broadening the kinds of people I have come to know and interact with, it has enriched my life as well. Such activities can keep a lid on our more primitive suspicions and keep bias at bay.

Being a diverse organization serving a diverse community, Baystate Health has a responsibility to be a leader in fostering a sense of community. Our Board, a group of volunteers that ensure we are being true to our charitable mission, has grown in the last five years to better reflect the communities we serve. It now includes four African Americans and two LatinX members. We also are making strides in advancing diversity and inclusion among our providers, nurses and leaders as well, though we still have a ways to go there. We have created multiple opportunities for diverse young people to pursue healthcare careers, including the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership, our nursing school partnerships with AIC and STCC, and our new UMass Baystate Medical School. During the current pandemic, our outreach to the communities of color in inner city Springfield has brought information, testing and protective equipment directly to the communities most at risk of severe infection. To me, universal approaches to public health also combat the disease of racial injustice.

I am proud of the work we are doing to advance diversity and inclusion in our organization. Baystate Health will remain a source for good in our communities by committing to an open and inclusive organization that will serve as an example for others. I believe that will be the vaccine to fight the virus of racism, as we all seek to build a better society.

Dr. Mark Keroack
President & CEO, Baystate Health