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Southern Discomfort

July 17, 2013

hippocratic oath

First, do no harm.

Nothing really shocks me these days, but this story did catch me off guard: Terry Ragland, a 55 year-old African-American woman from Jackson, Tennessee, went to see an orthopedist at a practice called  Sports Orthopedics & Spine where she’s been treated for lower back pain. Dr. Timothy Sweo, who is white and whom she’s never seen, had a very unusual diagnosis for her ailment: “ghetto booty.” The actual medical term for the cause of Ms. Ragland’s pain is lumbar lordosis, an inward curvature of the spine. Excessive curvature can lead to moderate to severe back pain, and in some severe cases, a bulge of the backside and visceral fat. Children with a vitamin D deficiency (common in African-Americans) can develop this condition.

Ms. Ragland was shocked by Dr. Sweo’s choice of words. “I think I blacked out after he said ghetto booty,” she said in a TV news interview. “I think my mind was just stuck on the phrase because I couldn’t believe he said that.” Dr. Sweo told her he wasn’t able to permanently cure her, but could treat the pain.

After her visit was over,  Ms. Ragland registered a complaint with the office manager, who apologized for the remark. Dr. Sweo apologized to her in a letter a few weeks later, explaining that he was “trying to take a technical conversation regarding your lower back and make it less technical.” He added that the term is “not targeted toward a certain race or ethnicity” and that he didn’t mean to be offensive. He did admit that it was “probably inappropriate” and he would not be using those words anymore.

The written apology did little to satisfy Ms. Ragland, who said “It says to me that he doubts what type of intellect I have, how intelligent I am to be able to understand what he conveys to me in a medical term.” She explained “that actually is a slur, a racial slur, ghetto.” She went on to file a complaint with the State of Tennessee and hopes Dr. Sweo will have a better bedside manner with his patients.

Internet reaction to the story has been mixed, with most commenters expressing the usual opinions of “she needs to lighten up, he wasn’t being offensive” and “I think she should have taken that as a compliment” and “If I were her, I would have laughed and let it go.” There was also the predictable fat shaming with remarks that “she should get off her fat ass and lose weight and her pain will go away.” (Gotta love those armchair physician trolls).  Some did come to Ms. Ragland’s defense, agreeing with her decision to file a complaint and that they would have been offended at the doctor’s comment too.

It doesn’t surprise me that many people feel Ms. Ragland should have just let the situation slide. We know all too well that fat people are constantly told they are too sensitive and they need to lighten up and take jokes made at their expense in stride. They are also told that hating their bodies is for their own good because it gives them an incentive to lose weight. If fat shame and fat hate actually DID help people lose weight,  then every fat person on the planet would be thin.

As for the racial aspect, I don’t know why people continue to be astonished when others get offended by certain words and phrases. ‘Ghetto” conjures up a lot of negative images for many. I would not expect a doctor to use it in a professional setting when making a diagnosis of a patient’s condition. He may have thought he was being cute trying to relate to her  or that she would find it funny, but that is ignorance on his part. We don’t know if he’s done this with other patients of color and we don’t know if those other patients were offended or not. But we shouldn’t dismiss a patient who did decide to speak out and was made to feel inferior and stupid.

This is really what Body Acceptance is about: making our voices heard and letting others know that our appearance, our education, our economic status — those personal factors we live with — should not be a factor in keeping us from expressing our opinions. We shouldn’t let others speak for us when we have the power and the freedom to do so. Diversity doesn’t hurt us — it makes us better and it makes us stronger.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2013 7:02 pm

    Seriously… ??
    The only benefit of the doubt I can give this doctor is (like you said) perhaps it was merely a very poor, somewhat distasteful attempt at “humor”… you know- in a botched attempt to be “cool” like a “brothah” … But WOW, what a horrible and insulting faux pas!! ::: SMH :::

  2. July 17, 2013 8:40 pm

    Dumb-asserie is everywhere, but the medical field seems to be rife with it, especially when dealing with fat people!

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    July 18, 2013 8:56 am

    Why are black people supposed to let stupid comments slide, but white people are justified in being outraged if someone calls them on their stupid comments? Oh yes, just like stand your ground applied to Zimmerman but not Trayvon Martin.

    • lifeonfats permalink
      July 18, 2013 3:38 pm

      I think some of it has to do with the “uppity black person” stereotype that gets thrown around by Rush Limbaugh and people like him. That because we have affirmative action and programs to help minorities, they shouldn’t get upset and they should be grateful because of the handouts and the “special treatment” and keep quiet.

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