By Brenda Gazzar
Code Wack Podcast, December 14, 2020
Featuring Dr. Susan Rogers, new president of Physicians for a National Health Program. Dr. Rogers is recently retired from Stroger Hospital of Cook County, Illinois, but continues as a volunteer attending hospitalist and internist there. She is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Rush University, where she is an active member of the Committee of Admissions. She is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the National Medical Association.
What was it like growing up Black in America during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s? What was the experience of systemic racism faced by students of color – especially Black women – in medical school during that era? With host Brenda Gazzar, Dr. Susan Rogers, new president of Physicians for a National Health Program, describes the life experiences that helped shape her commitment to social justice and healthcare equity.
(10-second Talk back music)
Welcome to Code WACK!, your podcast on America’s broken healthcare system and how Medicare for All could help. I’m your host, Brenda Gazzar.
Dr. Susan Rogers is at the forefront of the fight for single-payer health care — and healthcare equity — in America. She’s the new president of Physicians for a National Health Program. She was a young Black student in Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests. Those historic events helped shape her into the physician and patient advocate that she is today.
(5-second stinger music)
Dr. Susan Rogers grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park community in the 1950s and 60s. It was near the University of Chicago and one of the only truly integrated neighborhoods in the city back then.
Rogers: I grew up with white friends, Asian friends, everybody. You know, there weren’t that many Latinos in the area, but it was totally integrated. And even though I would hear about things in the news, that was normal for me to grow up with people like that and I’m still friends with many of those that I grew up with from different races and so my perspective of the world was a little bit different in the sense that this was my normal.
When she was in the 7th or 8th grade, her mother took her and her siblings downtown to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights icon had come to Chicago to fight neighborhood segregation. He found it to be just as segregated, she said, as the South.
(Backdrop of protests sounds)
Rogers: And so we went down to that march, and I was just amazed. It was you know, at this time, there were boycotts at the school. The superintendent of schools at that time did not want to integrate the schools. So even though our school was integrated, he put up what they called these mobile classrooms. So, even though there were schools that were overcrowded, he didn’t want Black students to go elsewhere or white students to go. So he put these mobile classrooms in the parking lots of these schools so that he could maintain segregated education and his last name was Willis, Ben Willis, and we all called them the Willis Wagons.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was once arrested after protesting the installation of these classroom trailers as a University of Chicago student.
Rogers: My mother was very active in a lot of the social justice issues of the neighborhood. And so I grew up thinking, this is the norm. This is what you do.
Dr. Rogers went to Kenwood High School in Hyde Park, where her class of 1971 was also very politically active.
Rogers: We walked out against the gang problem. We walked out against the Vietnam War. So it was a socially active group, even at that time, in terms of being involved in civil unrest and against the police.
After high school, Dr. Rogers went to a small liberal arts college in Colorado, which she had heard about from a friend back home. But she wasn’t prepared for that experience.
Rogers: It was like going to a foreign country. I had never met white people who had never physically seen a Black person. There was so much wealth at that school. I mean their idea of a summer job was taking care of their neighbor’s horse.
The school’s Black students congregated at a home that became the center of their social life. But they didn’t feel welcomed at the school.
Rogers: And I remember at the time, my second year, we rallied to get Black faculty because there really wasn’t any Black faculty on the campus. And so who they came up with, was a tennis coach.
(Sound of tennis ball volleying)
That was how they were going to integrate the faculty. It was a reflection really of how this country was. It was very separate, there wasn’t much interaction.
It was interesting because there was a white guy there, who I had grown up with, he was the one who told me about the school. He was a year ahead of me. And we never really talked while we were there. The separateness, even though we both grew up in a very integrated neighborhood, we both became separate because that was the culture at the school.
Dr. Rogers was also the only Black biology major at the school. That left her feeling somewhat isolated.
Rogers: The whole idea that I even mentioned being a doctor was “are you sure you want…?” I mean, I wasn’t encouraged. It was different…I’m glad I left, because I don’t think I would have gone to medical school, if I had stayed there.
I did have support at home but at the time, I was very angry. The Black Panthers were very active. The whole Vietnam War and all the subtle racism there at the school, that you become angry, and you lose sight of what you should do or what’s the right thing to do because … this anger. And so that’s why I’m glad I left, because then I could focus on what it was that I wanted to do and what was the right thing to do, the good thing to do, what I was able to do versus being, you know, consumed by this anger.
So after two years, Dr. Rogers left Colorado College and went to a historically Black college, Hampton Institute, in Virginia. She ultimately graduated from Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago in order to be at home with her ill mother.
Dr. Rogers says she was fortunate that her father was a dentist and the family was well off at the time. That enabled her to have choices.
And I realized that a lot of people have no choices. And as I’ve gotten older and read more about the history of this country and how atrocious it is, and all of that, most people don’t have choices in their lives.
It’s like, if you look at what’s happening today. Look at essential workers. They don’t have a choice. What is their choice? They can either go to work and risk COVID, and bring it home, or they cannot go to work and risk being homeless and hungry. Those aren’t choices. You end up doing what you need to do to survive to the next day.
When she went to the University of Illinois Medical school in 1975, U.S. hospitals had been integrated for less than a decade. She said the older white attending physicians who were training her didn’t believe she should be there.
Rogers: They had grown up in this totally segregated healthcare community and it was a struggle to prove that you were smart enough to do that. And I look back at some of the evaluations and they were totally unfair, totally unfair.
Her first medical school rotation was OB GYN.
(Sound of baby crying)
It was eight weeks on rotation, three weeks off and then they had to take a big board exam.
And I read and read and I knew that I knew what I was talking about. I learned so much. but my evaluation says, although I wasn’t smart, I worked hard, so he passed me. And I knew that that was totally wrong…I felt awful. I cried. I mean how could this be? And I was not a student who struggled.
I went to the dean, and the dean took me up there, and it was an older white guy, who was known for his racism. He said, “well, if you don’t believe me, you can talk to the residents” and I wish I had called his bluff but even then, I don’t know if the residents would have supported me versus supporting him, you know.
I look at where I am now and the fact that I was personally able to see that that wasn’t fair and that I didn’t let it convince me that I shouldn’t be there. And it’s still a struggle today. I mean that hasn’t changed — just being professionals, you know. The sense of entitlement in this country, regardless of what anyone else has done. Why should I have to continue to prove myself?
Dr. Rogers trained at a county hospital in Chicago because that was close to her heart.
I went into medical school telling myself, “I’m going to medical school to take care of Black people.” That was my goal and that was why I trained at Cook County and that’s why I retired from Cook County.
I did leave and did some other things in public health institutions, with the (Department of Veteran’s Affairs) with community health centers and all. So I still stayed taking care of that population but I ended up coming back to (Cook) County Hospital.
And I did what I wanted to do. I took care of the people who I wanted to take care of.
Next time on Code WACK!, we’ll hear about Dr. Susan Roger’s experience treating patients at Cook County Hospital — now Stroger Hospital of Cook County — in Chicago.
Find more Code WACK! episodes on ProgressiveVoices.com and on the PV app. You can also subscribe to Code WACK! wherever you find your podcasts. This podcast is powered by HEAL California, uplifting the voices of those fighting for healthcare reform around the country.