Woman who woke up from surgery with hair braided by doctor makes the case for more Black physicians: ‘It can save lives’

Video reporting by Jacquie Cosgrove

When India Marshall woke up from a skull operation last month, she noticed something odd as she removed her bandages: her hair was braided differently than it had been pre-surgery. She assumed it was the handiwork of a kind Black nurse, but later, to her surprise, found out that they were actually done by the surgeon, a Black man who happens to be the father of three girls.

Her Twitter post about the revelation, which noted, “I almost cried,” went viral, bringing more than 586,000 likes and prompting a powerful discussion about the need for more Black doctors.

Yahoo Life caught up with Marshall and her surgeon, Dr. Jewel Greywoode, both of Charlotte, N.C., to find out how they connected and why it was so important to both of them.

Turns out Marshall, 29, found her way to him while hunting for a surgeon who could remove benign bone growths on her skull, called osteomas, which had started to grow on her forehead and between her eyes, making it difficult to wear glasses. Her search was difficult because many of the surgeons with whom she spoke claimed that the only way the bone growths could be removed was to make ear incisions, which, she tells Yahoo Life, is “quite extensive,” causing a difficult recovery and unsightly scars. 

She persisted, however, and eventually found Greywoode, an ear, nose and throat physician who specializes in cosmetic and functional facial plastic surgery. He was the only doctor who suggested going though Marshall’s nose to avoid leaving a scar on her face, she says, and this gave her a confidence boost.  

Greywoode explains to Yahoo Life that he utilized his knowledge to find the “best way to minimize scars, hair loss and numbness.” His approach helped Marshall feel comfortable because she could tell that “he really cared,” she says, adding, “He addressed things that separated me from being just a patient and that humanized me.”

Still, Marshall had one other major concern, despite having undergone the same procedure nine years earlier: She was worried that her “large” curly hair would be “in the way,” as she’d recently gone natural and had been straightening her hair the last time around. In preparation for her procedure with Greywoode, she washed, detangled and plaited some of her voluminous hair to “help as much as possible,” explaining, “I shouldn’t have felt like this, but I felt like it would be a hassle. I just didn’t want to be a burden while he was trying to do the surgery.”

She was not the first Black woman to feel this way: Throughout history, Black hair in its natural state has been seen as burdensome, problematic and unprofessional, largely because it is judged based on European beauty standards. And the prejudice persists today, with frequent stories popping up about schools forbidding hairstyles such as afros, Bantu knots, dreadlocks and braids; it’s only recently that Black TV news reporters have been appearing on-air with their hair in its natural glory. Fortunately, this month was the anniversary of the CROWN Act, legislation authored by California State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell prohibiting “race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities.”

So it was a pleasant surprise when Marshall awoke from surgery to find her hair not only undisturbed by a razor, but in neat braids, which made cleaning her wounds easier and, because of that, simplified her recovery. Furthermore, he’d used staples instead of stitches so that she didn’t have to lose hair while removing them. While she initially assumed that her nurses had done her the favor, saying, “I never thought that it was Dr. Greywoode,” she discovered at her follow-up appointment weeks later that her surgeon was behind the protective style. She says she was shocked, and that his disclosure of having braiding experience because of having helped his daughters really resonated with her. 

Greywoode tells Yahoo Life that his braiding abilities surprised the nurses as well, and explains that while his sister taught him how to braid as a child, his skills have improved through being a father, as he has regular “curl nights,” during which he and his wife spend time washing, detangling and then braiding their daughters’ hair.

The image of family curl night brings to mind Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning animated short, Hair Love, a heartwarming depiction of a Black father taking time to learn how to style his daughter’s big curls. “People don’t expect a lot of dads to be doing their daughter’s hair,” says Greywoode, “and I think it just goes a long way to show that yes, dads are involved. That’s the reason I do it — because it is a bonding time for me and the girls. I enjoy taking care of them.”

That struck a chord with Marshall, who tells Yahoo Life, “I am the oldest of four girls. So, having a father really being involved in his daughter’s hair? That was emotional. … It’s a simple gesture, but my hair … is important and it’s a lot of work as well. We know the work it takes to put braids in, so that simple gesture of him showing that my hair is important and him wanting to preserve it in a way that would be beneficial to me … it was really special.”

Marshall also talks about the connection between Black maternal mortality rates and white doctors who do not believe their patients’ symptoms or their descriptions of pain, saying that she’s had other serious health problems dismissed that way. Just this month, Sha-Asia Washington, a 26-year-old Black woman from New York, died during an emergency C-section. Her newborn daughter, Khloe, survived and is being raised by her father, Juwan Lopez. 

For Black mothers, this tragedy is not unfamiliar, as they are “at least 3 to 4 times more likely to die in childbirth or of pregnancy-related complications than white mothers,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The causes have been linked to “generally preventable” conditions like heart complications, hemorrhages, infections and embolisms, but are made worse by “poverty, lack of access to care and the impact of institutionalized racism on quality health care — all of which disproportionately affect Black women.”

The impact of racist attitudes in health care have been documented as early as the 1800s, when J. Marion Sims “operated on at least 10 enslaved women without anesthesia.” Vanessa Northington Gamble, a professor at George Washington University, explained to USA Today that one of the women, named Anarcha, “endured at least 30 painful surgeries.” In the end, Gamble said, after he was done testing his methods on Black women, Sims moved to New York City and opened a women’s hospital where “he started treating white women, but with anesthesia.”  

In 2016, a study showed that these false beliefs aren’t as abandoned as they should be, as nearly half of first- and second-year medical students believed that “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.” That same study also showed that “trainees who believed that Black people are not as sensitive to pain as white people were less likely to treat Black people’s pain appropriately,” which some say is the reason that Sims didn’t numb his Black patients.

In 2018, Serena Williams spoke of her own experience with similar circumstances during the delivery of her baby girl, Olympia. She explained that first her heart rate suddenly dropped during her contractions and that then, the next day, she’d developed blood clots along her lungs. Due to a previous injury, she was already on “high alert” and knew to look for these symptoms, however she “nearly died in the process of convincing the doctors to run the correct tests.”

Greywoode points out that Black people’s mistrust of the health care system is understandable. He recalls the cases of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiments, and tells Yahoo Life that bringing awareness to the need for more Black doctors is “very timely for what’s going on in our country.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a 2018 survey showed that only 5 percent of active doctors in the United States identified as Black or African-American, while 56 percent identified as white. That same year, a Stanford University study showed that the health outcomes of Black men improved greatly even when “randomly” assigned to a Black doctor.

Aside from more egregious examples of what some have called “medical apartheid,” studies have shown that “individuals who report experiencing racism have greater rates of illnesses.” Furthermore, racial inequities are typically blamed on individual behaviors or cultural patterns when, instead, research has linked them to factors like “social segregation, immigration policy, and intergenerational effects,” calling for further studies to “seriously consider the multiple dimensions of structural racism as fundamental causes of health disparities.”

Marshall tells Yahoo Life that “it’s important to have people that can identify with us and that don’t have bias when they see us, and believe us, because it can save lives. It can be the difference between life and death just being believed and being seen.”

Greywoode agrees, saying, “I think the biggest thing [to keep in mind] is, whether … you’re a surgeon, an internist, a teacher, whoever, whatever your profession, is the person that you are interacting with is an actual person, a family member of somebody else. To do things that are normal and decent and you don’t necessarily have to expect a viral reaction, but it definitely is important to make the other person that you’re talking to feel seen.”

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