A Connecticut Medical Student Responded To An Islamophobic Patient With Grace And Courage

First, she left them room. Then, she made a choice.

Medical student Sara H. Rahman, a Muslim American from a small and predominantly white town in Maryland, wasn't sure how to respond when a patient attacked her religion, but her gut told her to react with compassion, not anger, and she has no regrets.  

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Rahman recalls caring for a patient with worsening back pain, whom she refers to as Mr. J. When Mr. J lamented feeling "angry" because of  "ISIS and those Muslims," the medical student at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, who says she doesn't "look" Muslim, was taken aback, but not surprised by his remarks. This was nothing new for her.

"[On September 11, 2001,] my race and religion stopped being simply one part of my personal identity and became a part of my political reality as well," Rahman writes. "The tensions born that day have only intensified. Hate crimes against Muslims have surged; each time I visit my Muslim community back home, I hear another story of someone's car or store being vandalized, or of death threats received in the mail."

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Even as Mr.J's speech grew more hateful — "I want to take care of them for good and send them all packing. They aren't welcome here," — Rahman, who notes she would have stood up for herself had Mr. J not been a patient, knew better then to respond with anger and unkind words. 

Rahman excused herself for a minute and recalled an influential medical school professor — Dr. A — who advocated for and supported Muslim students after 9/11 despite losing her husband in the attacks.

"Maybe I can act as Dr. A did. As wounded as I feel by Mr. J's harsh words, I can respond to them — and him — with kindness and care," Rahman writes. "In leaving the room, I reflect, I let my reactions to Mr. J's words override my duty to care for him. I don't have to let that happen — I can choose to transcend the barriers that divide us."

Sara, during a recent trip to aid refugee camp residents in Greece.

With xenophobia and terror attacks in the developed world on the rise, compassion is needed now more than ever before, and thankfully, Rahman is not alone in her thought process. Following the terror attack on Parliament that killed four people and wounded many others in London last month, a group of Muslim women stood on Westminster Bridge and held hands with other members of the community as an act of solidarity.

 "I may not have changed Mr. J's perceptions of Muslims, but I fulfilled my duties as a physician-in-training. Perhaps someday he'll find out that I'm Muslim. Maybe I'll have a chance to change his opinion — and maybe I won't," Rahman continues. "Either way, I don't regret my decision to respond not with wounded anger but with my best attempt at compassion."

Should Rahman ever again be confronted with Islamophobia, particularly by a co-worker, she thinks she'll respond much the same — but next time, she'll explain that she, too, is a Muslim. 

She imagined that conversation in an essay for Pulse: Voices From The Heart Of Medicine.

"I am Muslim. But I am also a doctor," she wrote, as if speaking to the co-worker. "I can offer you my skills to the best of my ability, regardless of how you feel about my identify. It's your decision if you're open to working with me."

Others have had the opportunity to speak up when they see their Muslim brothers and sisters under attack. When protesters in California disrupted a Muslim celebration by chanting things like "Islam leads to hell" last summer, a Muslim American teen combatted the hate speech by blasting joyful music and breaking out some killer dance moves. A crowd soon formed, and the protests were silenced.

Bottom line: Compassion (and dancing!) can go a long way when fighting against hate.

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