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Post #5 Expendable People: My Conversation with Dr. Cleavon Gilman

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

I first heard of Dr. Cleavon Gilman less than a month ago. I was reading

through what at the time seemed to be an implausible news story. A doctor

was being told not to return to work for daring to speak publicly about the

stress that COVID placed on his state’s hospital system. Amid a pandemic,

when hospitals are struggling to keep pace with the increased flow of

critically ill patients, it seemed almost impossible that any physician would

be told not to return to work.

As I scrolled through the rest of the news story, I saw the photo of Dr. Gilman

and realized the story was also about a man of color who was willingly

putting himself at risk during this horrific health crisis. Thinking his story

would be like so many others, I decided to ask if he would participate in the

Project. People of color have been at the front lines of this battle since the

earliest days of the crisis, and I thought it was time to tell a story representative of the many heroes working to keep our nation healthy and whole. What I discovered was a man whose history of service extends far beyond the current crisis. Listening to Dr. Gilman connect his experiences as a soldier in Iraq to his recent work in the emergency room has left me inspired by his perspective, resilience, and concern for others. His is a story not of blind martyrdom but instead of thoughtful and considered decisions to be of service to others.

In this post to the Big Black Man Project, I am sharing a small part of our conversation covering the lessons of service, moral obligation, and the burden of navigating one’s identity as a Black male doctor in America. As is likely to be the case with many of these interviews, I have come away from my conversation with Dr. Gilman with a renewed sense of my own purpose.


Thank you once again for sharing our stories.


Sincerely,


C.L.Greene II

____________________________________________________


Dr, Cleavon Gilman

Interviewee: Dr. Cleavon Gilman

Age: 41

Place of Birth: Long Branch, New Jersey.

Emergency Room Physician

Current Location: Yuma, Arizona

Interviewer: Charles L. Greene II

Executive Director, The Big Black Man Project.


CLGII: I wonder if you could describe your relationship with America.


Dr. Gilman: Interesting. My relationship with America. What part of America, right?

Because that's always an interesting thing with me. I always had a rule that I've kind

of broken now. My rule was that I always live near the more progressive coasts. I lived

in New York, Bethesda, Maryland, whenever I had a choice, but it's an interesting

relationship. I've given many years to this country. I've served in the military. I've got

PTSD over this. So it's an interesting relationship. I'm grateful at the same time. I

used the GI Bill to get through school, but I don't know. There are two Americas. It's

a really hard question. Am I doing okay with the question?


CLGII: You are doing great with it.


Dr. Gilman: I know what I want to say. One of the main reasons why I am where I'm

at right now is because of serving in the Iraq War. When I went to Iraq, I saw the poverty that had stricken those people. If you were born poor, you were just poor. You had no way of climbing up the social ladder and doing better for yourself. When I returned home, I really gained an appreciation for the ability to change that. If you were driven, you could climb up the ladder of success in America. I took full advantage of the college education. But I had to go to a war zone to acknowledge that that educational opportunity existed. Does everyone have to be deployed to a war zone to have that idea awaken in them? Because it was always there, right?

Well, I guess I'm not sure if it was always there because after my enlistment I was awarded the GI Bill. I like this country because if you are driven then you can take advantage of a lot of the opportunities that it provides you. Of course, I'm $300,000 in debt now after the GI Bill. There's probably some hedge fund making a lot of cash off of me right now. (laughs) So, I'm conflicted, as you can see. You know, I went to war for this country, but was I just a tool? I told you I got PTSD from that. They say that war is rich men talking and young men dying. Those who live are left with horrible memories, so here I am left with the trauma of the Iraq War.

Dr. Gilman with emergency medical @ Columbia NYC

So my relationship with America is a conflicted story. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention being black and pulled over at gunpoint at the age of 17 accused of driving a stolen car that was my mom’s. To this day, every time I'm in the car, I take off my hat because I don't want to be pulled over. Me, walking across the street and watching people clutch their purses. If I wear a sweatshirt or hoodie, people look at me a different way. So there are two Americas. I've gotten better at navigating that as I’ve gotten older. But it's real. If I drive, I'm always looking for police officers. That's just how I am now. That is ingrained in my DNA. It's interesting to be an ER doctor right and have a police officer in the emergency room address me as “Sir.” The power is flipped in the emergency room, where that's my home domain. I'm always apprehensive about talking to police and law enforcement because of my bad experiences, and it wasn't anything that I've ever done at all. I'm a good person, but people view me as a big guy. I'm six foot four, 240 pounds, and people view me a certain way. I'm not even a threatening person, and I'm always aware of my size too. I always try to be less threatening to people because I know that people have their views of me, and they don't even know who I am. These are the things I live with on the day to day. I see race. I don't try to think like that, but it's just there. What else can I do?

I live in Yuma, Arizona, which is a military town. My neighbor across the street is black, and his wife is white, and they've always checked in with me. They're really kind people. I'm really grateful to have them in my neighborhood.


CLGII: I know what you mean. You'll have no comprehension of this at all since

you're out west. I have about 2 feet of snow in my yard. I figured this year I could

handle the snow myself. I took my tiny little snowblower out there, and I got most of

it done. And then my neighbor came over with his giant monster snowblower and

cleaned up everything I did. He did the walkway in front of my house. He carved a

path down the front of my yard to the sidewalk. I didn’t ask him to do it. It matters to

have people who look at you and say, “Hey, my neighbor deserves to be looked after.”


Dr. Gilman: That's amazing. Just treat people how you want to be treated. Just be

good neighbors, and look out for each other. We all live in this same community

together.. He had that great snowblower, and he was able to hook you up. He kept

going. He could have quit. He said, “Nope, I'm gonna keep going.”


CLGII: If you could change the world, what would you change first?


Dr. Gilman: If I could change the world, I would make everyone speak the same


Dr. Gilman as a young soldier.

language. I would have a universal language. A lot of things are lost in translation. When I was in Iraq, it was enlightening to see “the enemy”, an Iraqi, and to actually look them in their eyes and say, ‘you don't look so different than me.’ Not being able to communicate with people is probably the root of our nation’s fascination with our border and the need to block “the other” from coming here. If a person spoke English, you would probably be more sympathetic to their reason for coming here if they could explain why they're fleeing, political violence, or something similar. It has to be the language. I'm always conscious of people in general. I have always been like that because I've come from poverty, and I know what it's like. And then, too, I've been to war, and seen extreme poverty. I know that it has to be hard to live in a place like Honduras. I did a song about that, too. I always do a song about something if I'm very interested in it. I research then turn it into a song. I read a lot of books as well when I was at Berkeley about what a border is and the Mexican-American population. I also learned about the exploitation of undocumented migrants in the meat-packing industry and things like that. I'm always learning new things.


When I see a problem, I ask myself, “Why is that a problem?” In terms of immigration, why are people fleeing their country to come to the United States? How has the pandemic exacerbated immigration?


CLGII: Well, you just sort of picked up my next line of questioning. How exactly did

you become an ER doctor at the center of the COVID pandemic?


Dr. Gilman: I just knew. Having served in the Iraq War, I knew America was

headed towards a war. I saw it all unfolding. I even pulled my kids out of school

a week early in New York City, because I began seeing COVID patients trickling in. These patients were short of breath, and it was unlike anything I've ever seen before. This virus was destroying people's lungs and making them very short of breath and hypoxic.

Dr. Cleavon Gilman and an EMT.

I remember being on a shift, and my hospital said that I couldn’t talk to anybody. So I

was like, ‘Okay, I can't talk to the media.’ so I'm going to create a journal then. I'm not

going to talk to anyone, but people can read my journal online and read about

everything I'm seeing. That's how I got around the hospital and not being able to talk

as a hospital employee. I like to write. I documented everything I saw and painted a picture. During the writing process, I was able to draw connections of what I was experiencing. It was therapeutic. I cried during a few journal entries. My heart hurt so much after writing a few of them. I wrote through tears. After a 12-hour shift or 8-hour shift, I came home and wrote for 2 to 3 hours. Then I posted it to Facebook, and it began to get traction. People were interested because no one had seen this virus. After an exhausting shift, I put out a video, which was right before spring break, warning people that this virus would spread across America, closing with , “It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when.” The hospitals were overwhelmed and patients were dying on shift. Patients arrived and coded immediately, and then people were being brought in dying. Two or three people were dying per shift. It was just devastating, but I felt this moral obligation to warn America.


I always tell everyone that I don't care if I lose my job over warning people about this deadly pandemic. I'm going to be vocal because this is a deadly virus, and people need to know exactly what frontline providers are experiencing. Meanwhile, Trump was downplaying the virus, saying COVID was like the flu when he knew it was deadly. So evil. The virus was killing young people. It was killing people who were 20 years old. What the hell? The Trump administration then said young people are not affected, just trying to push people to fill the pews for Easter. I was thinking, “This is insane.” If I didn't say anything about this, I couldn't live with myself in the future. So I began speaking out. And I've continued to speak. I've continued to be honest with people because of a moment I experienced in Iraq, when I

Dr. Gilman in Iraq, 2004

volunteered for a convoy. 10 of us were at the camp gate preparing to leave the base with our assault rifles, and one of the sergeants says, “Ok Gil you can go jump into the end of that dump truck.” And I was thinking, ‘How are they going to have us riding in the back of a dump truck for a six-hour convoy?’ There I was in the back of a dump truck thinking, Oh my God, this is so dangerous. If we hit an IED, I'm done. I'm going to have a head injury. I don't have any protection. I’m an easy target for a sniper.” At that point, I knew that Americans were expendable and that at any point, the government has expendable people. I never forgot how I felt at that moment. So when the government and the CDC told paramedics and EMTs in New York that they didn't need N95 I thought, “Absolutely, not!” You do need an N95 mask. A lot of people got sick and died because of those reckless recommendations. That was gross negligence. The CDC also said that healthcare providers could use a bandana for protection against COVID. Are they for real?? I’m not wearing a damn bandana in an emergency room so I can die from COVID. I'm not going to my job if I don't have an N95 mask. You guys are crazy. I'm not stupid. I've seen this play out before.

Of course, there is a lack of trust in the government when the policy is based upon

supply and demand rather than protecting the people on the frontlines. Then I came out here to Arizona, but I couldn't continue to journal because it's such a small community that everyone would know who I was talking about. So, I did other things. I posted profiles of people that died from COVID. Every morning, I would wake up, search Google for people that died from COVID the day prior,

A tired Dr. Gilman getting a moment’s rest.

eventually turning them into threads. All of that research of young people killed by COVID was turned into a publishable JAMA paper two weeks ago.


I can go on forever and talk because it's been such a long journey. I had three of my colleagues who died in New York. I had two of my colleagues intubated on ventilators for a long time. It is just a horrible virus, and then for people to downplay it, it is just exhausting.




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