I think the reason that the story of the father who asked Flint Hurley Hospital to keep a black neonatal intensive care nurse from caring for his newborn baby has received such widespread attention is because the story is so painful, so familiar, and so unsatisfying. Whatever the hospital’s response to the father’s racist request (the response is in dispute), the source of the problem – the father - remains outside of the legal wrangling. We are drawn to the story at a personal level because the problem Hurley administrators faced is a problem most of us have faced at one time or another– how to respond when someone you’re dealing with throws a racist attitude on the table. If the person is a grandparent you have one set of options; a client, another; a foreign friend, yet another. A stranger? Well, it depends. Whatever you do, it's bound to feel inadequate.
My own neonatal intensive care unit story does not involve racism but it did teach me something important about my own biases. First of all it needs to be said that becoming a parent is profoundly disorienting. Childbirth is disorienting. Having your newborn child whisked away at birth, in a perilous condition, and deposited among strangers in a high-tech, barricaded environment is well beyond disorienting. That is what the parents of every NICU baby face. Their babies' lives are on the line, their access to them is dictated by conditions out of their control and regulations beyond their comprehension, and strangers are constantly poking and doing incomprehensible and frightening things to their babies.
Newborns are impossibly tiny and vulnerable creatures. Preemie neonates are worse. In the neonatal unit within their incubators they are often splayed naked, ventilated and mute. That they’re not meant to be out in the world yet is painfully obvious. And they have unimaginably tiny veins from which the nurses are required to draw blood at excruciatingly frequent intervals.
Within the NICU the overpowering impulse as a new parent to hold and comfort your baby initially is thwarted by the array of tubes and catheters protruding from the baby's limbs and digits, and by the paralyzing fear that you might cause him further distress. Enter the nurses. They rule the NICU, standing guard 24/7 over the incubators, exuding competence. They carry out their blood-drawing and prodding with exquisite concentration, speed, and skill. They are magnificently calming.
By the fourth day of my newborn son’s sojourn in the NICU I was totally in thrall to the three NICU nurses who stood over my son’s incubator round the clock. NICU nurses are trained not to give false hope to anxious parents, but the three nurses answered all our questions patiently and fully, and their dedication was beyond question. I placed my heart and my hopes in their sure and healing hands. But I was stopped cold the evening of the fourth day when I returned from a quick dinner to find a new nurse in place – a 6’ 2” hirsute male nurse with what seemed to me huge, unwieldy hands. Suddenly my confidence in my son’s survival drained to my feet; my protective instincts sprang to life. Without realizing it, I had been comforted by the femaleness of my son’s first caregivers, and their absence made me fearful and cranky. I sat by the incubator all night without a break. My vigilant anxiety about this new male nurse yielded only little by little as I watched his big fingers gently and skillfully draw blood and change bandages. In the end, it took the whole long night of closeness, need, and attention for me to overcome a bias I didn’t know I had.
I don’t offer this story by way of excusing the new father at Hurley hospital. There’s no magic formula for overcoming bias, especially racism, and the Hurley father's hatred may already be beyond redeeming. I do know from that day in the NICU, however, that sometimes a cure is as simple as being there and paying attention. And that’s a lesson that his father and I worked hard to teach our son after bringing him home from the neonatal unit. He’s a lawyer today and thus has a special responsibility to put that lesson to work every day.