Chronic Black Pain: Panel Discussion Recap

On Friday, June 19, 2020 – or Juneteenth – the University of Florida Student Physical Therapy Association (SPTA) class of 2021 and 2022, including Justus Norman, Monique Deveaux, Donelle MacDonald, SPTA leaders and others with support from faculty and staff, coordinated a successful panel discussion entitled, “Chronic Black Pain: Implications of the Racism Epidemic for Physical Therapists.” Nearly 200 participants tuned in to listen to this significant conversation.

The importance of the panel discussion, and the date it was held on, is two-fold. Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery and commemorates African American freedom. Although it is not the day that enslaved people were freed, which was Jan. 1, 1863, Juneteenth celebrates when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union army delivered the news to Texans in the Deep South, two and a half years later, and proclaimed all enslaved people were freed.

Now 155 years later, the matter of race, discrimination and inequality are still prevalent and necessary topics of discussion. Just a few weeks prior, the horrific video footage of the unjust killing of George Floyd sparked shock, outrage and sorrow within the Black community and beyond.

“I want to acknowledge the reasons why we were having this conversation. The culmination of unnecessary tragedies against Black people,” Justus said, who introduced the panel discussion. “With the lack of diversity in the faculty, staff, and students, we found it necessary to bring in Black voices to speak and to learn from.”

The panel discussion featured five Black therapists who practice in the rehabilitation field in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida. Moderated by Caronne Rush, MSM, Med, EdS, assistant director in the UF Office of Interprofessional Education, the panel consisted of Liyongo Tolin, MPT, DPT, OMPT, who currently practices physical therapy in Detroit, Michigan and teaches at Baker College; Melissa Clarke, PT, DPT, who is a physical therapist at Palm Beach Institute of Sports Medicine Physical Therapy; Brittany Britt, PT, DPT, who is a physical therapist at ATI Physical Therapy; Joshua Cooper, PT, DPT, who is an adjunct faculty member in the UF DPT Program and a practicing physical therapist at UF Health FIXEL Institute for Neurological Disorders; and Zari Cooper, MOT, OTR/L, CLT, an occupational therapist who is a Lymphedema therapist and practices at the Plaza Health and Rehab. 

Although the coordination of the panel discussion was a team effort, the idea to hold the panel presentation offering an opportunity for Black Physical Therapists to share their experience and to shed light on systemic racism was set in motion by Ally Marcy, c/o 2022 SPTA secretary, Justus, and Monique.

“I hope that the experiences and perspectives shared at the panel will further shed light on the work that still needs to be done to root out injustice and discrimination within our field and education systems,” Ally said. “I want to create a welcoming and positive environment for any and all of my future patients, and part of that is understanding the history and implications of racism and how it pervades every institution in our nation, from healthcare to home ownership.”

During the panel discussion, topics ranged from personal experiences with racism and implicit biases, how to professionally handle situations in the clinic when colleagues and patients display racism, and how peers can become allies to their Black friends, colleagues, patients and strangers.

To begin the discussion, Dr. Tolin described one of his experiences with racial bias when he was applying for a PT position. None of the employers initially called him back. However, the moment he changed his first name from “Liyongo” to “Lee,” he received call-backs from many of the same employers that originally ignored his resume.

“It had nothing to do with my skill level, where I graduated from, what my GPA was, it literally was that my name doesn’t look American” he explained.

The panel discussed the increased challenges and need to maintain professionalism in the clinic when patients say things like ‘you speak very educated for someone like you,’ or act surprised when they see a Black physical therapist. Dr. Cooper gave personal stories of how patients would look at him, his hair, and his face and then triple check his license to make sure he’s actually the PT the patient will be seeing.

“I’m trying my best to greet them and have a warm welcome, and yet they question my professionalism, or question my background, my education,” Dr. Cooper explained. “It’s just one of those things that really hits hard.”

Sometimes it’s hard to brush it off, and Zari Cooper shared her experience with a colleague who she couldn’t see eye-to-eye with  and had to figure out a way to feel comfortable knowing that there were tensions while at work. Her takeaway and advice to others in the same situation was to develop trust with supervisors, or a trust-worthy colleague, and explain what is occurring so that they understand the tensions.

A major issue identified by all panelists was that from their time in school to their clinical experiences to where they practice now, they don’t see therapists who look like them. Not only is this isolating but creates additional pressure to achieve and for additional credibility.

“I think outside of wanting to learn more about the profession, that was one of the things that really pushed me into doing my residency program,” Dr. Clarke said. “I didn’t see anybody that really looked like me in the profession and I never wanted somebody to question my ability to treat them, or my ability to provide them with optimal care.”

The panel also discussed the need for educational programs to ensure that graduates do not take part in or observe racial discrimination within the PT practice. Dr. Britt explained how she doesn’t remember taking any courses during her time in the PT program where racial discrimination was discussed, and how it needs to be recognized.

“I think it’s really just acknowledging it and being willing and open to talk about it and research about it,” she said. “I think educational programs need to be willing to step out a little bit and bring up the topic and be open for discussions and opinions for people who might have experienced it and know a little more about it.”

In addition to consistently keeping the topic of race and discrimination within the PT curriculum, Dr. Tolin expressed the need for Black PTs to help the younger generations of Black PTs.

“When I meet a young person, I don’t care how old they are. If they say they want to be a physical therapist, here’s my number, here’s my email, make sure we stay in contact,” he said. “I can help guide you through this process because there’s going to be bumps, obstacles – educationally, how you deal with people, you know you’re going to be by yourself and how to work through that, and I don’t want you to be alone.”

Over the course of an hour and a half, all panelists shared their illuminating and impactful personal experiences and offered their feedback on how to handle different situations, how non-people of color can help their Black colleagues, and how we have to be the catalyst for change.

“I hope the people who listened to this discussion were able to get a peek of what a Black person, no matter the shade, goes through. Not just in clinical practice but in life outside the clinic,” Monique said. “I hope it was able to allow those who are not Black to consider their privilege and encourage them to educate themselves further on matters that stems so deeply rooted into our society. I hope, if not anything else, the audience can commit to being ‘anti-racist’ rather than just ‘not being racist.’”

In response to the major needs, the Department has created a Diversity and Inclusion Task-force, comprised of faculty, staff and students, with the goal of tackling the lack of diversity seen within the Department, ways to create a better learning environment for Black students, curricular needs and overall awareness of race and racism issues.

“Throughout my life I have had to learn to navigate through ‘white spaces’ and I can’t say that this has changed during my time at UF,” Justus said. “I hope this is a steppingstone toward change in people’s heart as well as tangible changes. I would like to see an increase in black students, staff, and faculty in my program. This would bring immense changes to the program and profession.”

The Department attests that the topic of race, diversity and inclusion will stay at the forefront of our actions.

“I don’t want it to take another unjust murder of a Black person for this movement to reappear,” Monique said. “If we continue to walk on this path and advocate for those who are no longer with us, we will see a better tomorrow.”