“Now he’s considered one of the top prenatal surgeons in the nation,” said Jim Place, his coach at CJ.
Robinson is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago and serves as the assistant site director for the OB/GYN residency program there.
Friday morning he was on call and also was asked – via virtual consult — to review a case at another hospital where a dangerous pregnancy had had, as he put it, “a bad outcome.”
As Place once explained to me: “He takes care of high-risk pregnancies that other doctors don’t feel comfortable taking on.”
And in the past three months, Robinson and his colleagues have performed their work as the coronavirus pandemic has raged around them. Some of their patients have tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, away from the hospital he has faced the same numbing burden many African Americans are facing now.
Protests roil cities across the nation after yet another unarmed black man – this time 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis — was killed by a policeman who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he lay on the ground handcuffed and struggling to breathe.
Multiple videos show the kneeling cop ignoring Floyd’s anguished pleas as three other officers watched.
All four officers have since been fired and arrested, but that does little to assuage the frustration, anger and utter sadness that is sweeping through so many now.
The national protests are fueled not just by the sight of Floyd lying lifeless in the street, but more videos of the Feb. 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by three white men involved in chasing, taunting and shooting him.
And 19 days later Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT was killed by police who raided her Louisville home as she slept and shot her eight times even though the man they were looking for lived at a different address and already was in police custody.
For Robinson, the string of events on the streets and at his hospital have been almost overwhelming:
“It’s a lot personally and professionally. It seems like we’re being attacked on all sides. It’s not just me. All black Americans are facing an emotional burden these days.
“COVID-19 is disproportionally impacting African Americans as far as infection rates go. And once you get the virus, you’re twice as likely to die if you are black than if you’re white.”
He said there are several reasons:
“Black workers are on the frontlines in essential roles – the grocery stores, public transportation, food service. They’re at more risk.”
He said several hundred years of social inequity and poverty have led to things like obesity, diabetes and asthma and “they all lead to adverse outcomes for COVID-19.”
He said the deadly plight of blacks at the hands of police is “disheartening, frustrating, angering” for the African American community.
Off the top of his head he recited an RIP list that leaves you reeling: “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Corey Jones, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner…”
He could have added John Crawford III killed by police inside the Beavercreek Walmart.
“I couldn’t watch the whole George Floyd video,” Robinson said. “There’s no way I’d subject my psyche to that. These aren’t isolated incidents. They happen every day to hundreds of black people. It’s just that most of them don’t end in death and are not caught on video.”
Part of the problem, he believes goes back to a fundamental flaw in the Declaration of Independence:
“The part, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ But guess what they didn’t include? All men who are black (and Native Americans and women, too) weren’t considered equal.
“And when you go through our history – slavery, share-copping, Jim Crow laws, redlining, segregation, racial profiling, inequities in persecution and prosecution – you see the tools that continued to develop and promote inequality.”
He sees hope in the way black and white Americans have voiced their protest over Floyd’s killing:
“When you are aware and educated on an issue then you can feel empathy and that’s what’s needed.”
Still he worries the outrage may dissipate with time.
“My fear is that this just becomes part of the news cycle. That’s what happens so often. Take the mass shootings.
“There are two or three days of outrage and a call for action to change policy and have better background checks and prevent people with mental health problems from obtaining weapons and banning the sale of assault rifles and then…nothing ever happens.
“And obviously Dayton knows about all that, first hand.”
Dr. Barrett K. Robinson, from Northwestern University and Prentice Women’s Hospital, delivers the commencement address during the Chaminade Julienne High School Commencement at the Dayton Masonic Center, Monday, May 24, 2010.
Responsibility to patients
Robinson is one of the most accomplished and engaging student-athletes I’ve ever dealt with over the years.
“From the time he was 14 years old, he told me he wanted to be a high-risk prenatal surgeon,” Place once said.
While that might seem far-fetched, consider how Robinson followed through on that plan
“Every school night he went to bed at 7:30 so he could get up at 3:30 the next morning and study until 6:30 and then go to school,” Place said. “Everybody would ask ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I have a dream I want to fulfill. And I have to find an advantage to get to that.’”
He’s accomplished that and so much more, but the past few months with the COVID 19 pandemic has made his job even more challenging he said:
“I want to keep my wife and children safe and not bring the infection home or harm them in any way, but I also have a responsibility to my patients, too. No matter what’s going on elsewhere in the world, I’m still expected to do my job at the highest level of compassion for people of every race.”
‘I don’t know where to start’
White people come to Robinson in dire circumstances, bearing heart-wrenching problems and he does everything he can to save each mother and child and family.
Now he, like so many other African Americans, needs white Americans to return the favor and, most importantly, just do what’s right as so many black Americans face devastating – often deadly – situations.
I asked him if he ever faced times when he was he profiled or targeted simply because of the color of his skin.
He paused, then managed a quiet laugh: “Man, I don’t know where to start.”
He said his dad gave him “The Talk” just as many other African American fathers have given their children sobering warnings about how, in public, “we’re viewed through a different lens and subjected to different rules and do get profiled.
“I’ll give an example. Back in high school, I wanted to go to the teen night spot. It was called The Odyssey, but it was in Centerville and I lived in North Dayton.
“My parents never allowed me to go out there. They didn’t want any chance of me getting pulled over and looking at a policeman wrong and being made an example of.
“And I’d get upset and mad, but they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Can you imagine what would happen to your dreams then?’
“Even now, if I go buy a shirt in a store and they ask if I want a receipt, I always take it. Most people in this day and age don’t want an extra piece of paper. It’s just something to throw away.
“But as a black person, you have to try to avoid what could happen. You can come walking out the door and someone says, ‘Hey, did you pay for that?’ Then it becomes a big hullabaloo with store security. It’s just easier to hold up the receipt.”
A while back he was driving through a tony Chicago neighborhood on his way to the hospital. A police officer started to follow and then pulled him over.
“He said I was going 15 mph over the limit, but I guarantee you I was not. But guess what? I wasn’t going to contest it. A white guy might debate it, but a black man just wants to get out of that interaction alive.
“You’re like, ‘Am I gonna make it home to my family?’”
Robinson’s hope is that white Americans try to understand the situation more now from a black perspective.
The Reverend Martin Luther King is his hero and, as we spoke, he quoted a passage from the civil rights leader’s famed “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”:
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Robinson explained: “White people have to have those tough conversations with people around them. Conversations that are often made behind closed doors, around tables where black people are not.
“You’ve gotta stand up and say something if you hear racist, hateful things or comments that are just not correct.
“There are dozens of things you can do. Read a book a month that gives you a better perspective of a person of color. See a movie like Remember the Titans, Hidden Figures or When They See Us.
“You can call your Congressman, support a black business once a week or, if you own a business, hire a qualified black employee. All this can help.”
As for him, I asked Robinson how – in these times of public unrest and professional challenge and especially under the added threat of COVID-19 – he finds respite:
“Is that where your wife and three little kids come in?”
With a pause, he chuckled: “Certainly my family is a source of solace for me, but now that’s even changed since COVID came around 12 weeks ago.
“Now when I get home and the kids come running, I’m like, ‘No! Don’t touch me! I have to decontaminate first. I have to get out of my clothes and go upstairs and shower.’
“And now, believe it or not, my wife said, ‘Look, you need to take your clothes off outside on the porch first.’
“But I said, ‘Guess what? As a black man in my neighborhood, there’s no way I’m going outside on the porch and taking off all my clothes first.’”