Black Neurosurgeons Address Jacob Blake Shooting

We are tired, but we are resolute. In June, a group of Black Neurosurgeons came together to condemn the murder of George Floyd. At the time, buoyed by our newfound numbers and the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, we were hopeful that adding our voices to those around us could help spur change in our communities. That hope feels slightly dimmed in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake.

We know that the arc of history bends towards justice, and we know that this arc bends slowly. However, we were all stunned by the video of the unwarranted shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police. This incident hit home, as we have all tended to patients with severe spinal cord injuries. Gunshot wounds to the spine are particularly devastating, due to the amount of energy that can be transferred to a soft, but vital structure, in a small, rigid space. While we hope for recovery, we know that his life has been forever altered. Hearing that this man, assaulted by police in front of his three young children, is now sitting, handcuffed, in the hospital, despite being paralyzed from the waist down, is almost too much to bear.

If the moral injury we have all felt in witnessing this grievous neurological attack was not enough, we are now reeling from subsequent vigilante violence in Kenosha. A 17-year old was driven into Wisconsin by his mother. He and other vigilantes like him, heavily armed, were not restrained or confined by law enforcement, but they were rather welcomed into Kenosha by police and given free reign. While engaging with protesters, this Illinois man shot a man, in the head, at close range with a rifle, before shooting two more protesters who tried to disarm him, killing one. Again, we are only too familiar with what a rifle bullet, with the massive kinetic energy it possesses, can do to the brain, causing irreparable damage, well beyond the path of the bullet. Efforts to provide first aid were futile. After shooting three people, with witnesses, on video, this man walked right past police. They did not even attempt to detain him, let alone shoot him, despite protesters identifying him as the shooter. He was later apprehended after fleeing the state, and he is now in custody, unharmed.

The cognitive dissonance of witnessing an unarmed Black man shot in the back 7 times in front of his children, while a White mass shooter with a rifle was allowed to flee a crime scene, unimpeded, is difficult to cope with. However, disparities in the application of our criminal justice system happen daily. 

Sadly, such disparities continue on a daily basis in healthcare. The world is mourning the loss of Chadwick Boseman, an actor who portrayed countless Black icons, including Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and, of course, the Black Panther, to colon cancer. Black people are 20% more likely to develop colorectal cancer, and they have a 45% higher mortality rate. Neurosurgery is not immune to the effects of implicit bias and racism. Over the past several weeks, we have been leading a series, Black Lives in Neurosurgery, where we have examined disparities in healthcare and neurosurgery. In this series, we have discussed the historical racist violence perpetrated upon Black people in the healthcare system; learned how Black trainees are disproportionately targeted and dismissed by training programs; and discussed the racism we have all experienced at the hands of patients, colleagues and the general public.

On Thursday, September 3rd, at 8:30pm EDT/5:30pm PDT, we will end our webinar series with a discussion on solutions for Black Lives in Neurosurgery. While the series ends, our work is just beginning. That work will continue to focus, in part, on neurosurgery, but we cannot sit on the sidelines while our brothers and sisters continue to experience state-sanctioned violence. We stand in solidarity with professional athletes the world over who have paused to say enough is enough. With our responsibility to our patients, a boycott is not as easy for us to organize, but we are determined to demonstrate that we will not fade quietly into the night.

Even with our collective expertise and knowledge, gathered from across the country and touching every millimeter of the nervous system, we cannot yet mend Jacob Blake’s spine, nor can we regenerate the mind lost to that vigilante’s bullet. However, we pledge that we will not leave this fight until we have found a way to protect our communities from the institutions that are supposed to be keeping them safe, both inside and outside of medicine.

We remain, in solidarity,

Nnenna Mbabuike, MD

William W. Ashley, Jr., MD, Ph.D., M.B.A., FAANS 

Edjah K. Nduom, MD, FAANS

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