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A white man and his white wife check into a hospital maternity ward anticipating the birth of their baby. Upon completing the necessary paper work and settling into a room, the husband, in no uncertain terms, demands that only white staffers attend to his wife during her stay. With little discussion or consultation, the maternity ward supervisor accedes to the husband's wish, rearranging staffing to comply. This true scenario is not lifted from a history book, nor did it occur in the Deep South or in “white supremacist” strongholds in Montana or Idaho. Rather it occurred in a characterless suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 2003.

What makes this event so offensive? The overt racism expressed by the husband as opposed to the typical, muffled, under-the-radar, daily widespread racism that exists? The husband's preoccupation with the color of the hospital staff rather than with his wife's delivering a healthy baby? The hospital supervisor's condoning a nonpatient's racism, despite the hospital's antidiscrimination policy, which states, “employees will be assigned to patient services without regard to the race, creed, color, national origin or religion of either the patient or employee”? The supervisor's failure to consult and discuss the situation with staff members? Or the sad fact that this is not an aberrant isolated occurrence? Obviously, all of the above.

What Should Have Been Done

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  2. What Should Have Been Done
  3. What Was Done

The first consideration in almost any hospital situation is concern for the health and safety of the patient, herein, the pregnant woman. Given her impending delivery and antidumping statutes, it would have been improper and most likely illegal to discharge the patient to another hospital. Faced with the reality of treating the woman, who apparently did not disagree with her husband's request, the supervisor should have explained the policy and provided a copy of the hospital's antidiscrimination policy to the couple.

The husband's response to such action, gleaned from newspaper reports of his actions even though his demand was accommodated, would have been to become violent and threatening in an effort to get his way. At this juncture the man would have forfeited his privilege to be present at his wife's side and should have been removed from the environment unless able to abide by hospital policy.

What Was Done

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  2. What Should Have Been Done
  3. What Was Done

Instead of doing the right thing, the Abington Memorial Hospital supervisor failed in his responsibility to the hospital, to staffers, and to society at large. In doing so, he disrupted the hospital's staff, promoted bigotry, and focused unwanted attention from the NAACP and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the hospital. In general, he utterly embarrassed himself and the hospital, ultimately engendering comments such as “morally reprehensible” from the president of this 508-bed trauma facility whose 4510 staff is 24% minority.

Although almost 40 years have elapsed since enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a great deal of understanding and work is still needed. We can and must do better. For those doctors, hospitals, and medical personnel specifically—and all members of society for that matter— who have not experienced such a nauseating and concrete case of racism, discussing and preparing for its unfortunate eventuality will hopefully salvage something positive from Abington's abominable actions.