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Striving Forward in Spite of Systemic and Structural Racism

Photo of Tahj Blow wearing a black jacket, blue shirt, and orange tie.

Dr. Tahj Blow documents his path to becoming a better doctor for the bodies and minds of Black, Indigenous, Latine, People of Color.

Dr. Tahj Blow – a first-year internal medicine and psychiatry resident at Emory University – has unwavering plans to practice as an ethicist and oncologist in underrepresented communities of color.

For that, and for his steadfast pattern of leadership and commitment towards diversity, volunteering, and mentorship in medicine, National Medical Fellowships and Weill Cornell Medicine have awarded Blow a $5,000 academic scholarship in honor of NMF alumnus Dr. James Curtis toward his continued excellence.

“It is my responsibility and part of my creed to be one of the people in my patients’ lives who is as invested in their care on day one of their diagnosis all the way through to the present, when perhaps even friends and family have moved on after successful treatment”

“I want it to be part of my job to say, ‘I’m still here, and I can help relate.’”

Growing up in Brooklyn as the oldest of three siblings, Blow was one of only a few students of color attending Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.

“It affected how I framed my academics and desired arc,” he said. “What did I want to change in the world – and what would I keep the same, if I could?”

Then his aunt suddenly passed away from cancer.

“I didn’t get to spend the quality time I wanted to with her,” Blow said. “My time was something I could give so freely back then, but I didn’t think to as much as I could have.

“I never want to make that same mistake again for people with critical and life-changing diagnoses – for people looking for more than medical empiricism, for a degree of empathy to help relate to their human experience of not knowing what’s going on and what to do next.”

He later studied ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, often participating in not only research concerning neurobiology and genetics, but also culturally significant groups such as the Black Student Alliance and the Elihu Club.

Then, though well-known around campus, Blow became part of the national conversation concerning police reform and racism when he was erroneously stopped at gunpoint by the New Haven Police Department, and his father, Charles M. Blow, publicly denounced the incident as a columnist for the New York Times.

“There had been a string of breaking-and-entering on campus and I was leaving the library with media equipment when I was ordered to the ground,” Blow said. “It made me realize how trauma by definition is inherently random – no one wakes up expecting something awful to happen to them.”

The incident also forced Blow to reflect upon a system he was still determined to change.

“The U.S. was founded on the intersection of wealth and religion, and with that, many different biases were baked in. Many of our current systems – including health care – therefore contain the same biases, and there is a lot of work needed to overcome them.

“When stepping into a health care system where women and people of color were not even allowed to enter it until recent history, there will obviously be experiences that do not line up with the way an equitable workplace should operate.

Blow attended a nine-week pre-medical education and development program at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill before attending Weill Cornell Medical College, where he would also heavily participate in clinical research, anti-racism initiatives, ethics discussions, community-centered care, and student admission decisions, advocacy, and mentorship.

“At Weill Cornell, I learned a ton about myself through my classmates – eight Black women and four Black men in particular,” Blow said. “Watching these women, especially, lead with power, courage, empathy, and honesty – which is very hard to do when you have all these intersections of oppression working against you – I often thought about how much more challenging it must have been for them, and whether or not I was doing enough within my own personal power and abilities to benefit my communities.”

It was this level of emotional intelligence that led Blow to the combined five-year internal medicine and psychiatry residency at Emory University this year.

“A very high percentage of psychiatric conditions present themselves during exams for physical medical concerns, especially for those struggling with multiple issues at once, such as housing and diabetes,” he said. “Other patients who suffer strokes, miscarriages, stillbirths, cancer diagnoses, and more also often suffer undiagnosed psychiatric concerns, and especially in Atlanta, where there is particular wealth and race stratification, many patients here would benefit from that layering of psychiatric care in medicine.”

The intersection of psychiatric conditions and medical oncology is where Blow believes he as a Black physician could make the most impact.

“For example, there are a lot of barriers and conflicting issues in particular for Black, Indigenous, Latino, People of Color when it comes to prostate exams,” he said. “Prostate cancers can be treated if caught early, but are all too often morbid when caught late.”

Historical mistreatment and medical abuse of people of color, structurally and systemically racist health care policies that further complicate matters for those without adequate access, insurance, and/or finances, and internalized homophobia and other psychological concerns too often stop patients from consenting to prostate exams.

Dr. Blow said this intrinsic and lingering belief that the system does not and will not ever care about people of color also affects important medical issues such as a palliative care.

“There are many medical, therapeutic, and emotional benefits to palliative care for both patients and families, but research shows levels of utilization vary among different cultural and ethnic groups,” he said.

“As a Black physician managing and earning trust via ongoing oncological care, I’d hope to be able to more sensitively share my understandings and experiences in conversations with patients and families of color who are scared of what comes next.”

Dr. Blow said for this reason and many others, he is very interested in working with NMF and Weill Cornell to provide future mentorship to fellow physicians and health workers of color.

“As I continue to climb, I want to make the process of blazing a trail easier, knowing how tough it can be to be the one first cutting through the forest,” he said. “It is very important to me that I continue to help reaffirm and validate those wanting to walk the same path.”