In a vascular surgery career spanning 20 years, Vincent Rowe, MD, has seen it all: Tending to patients at bedside, the vascular surgical services chief at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center has had his very presence as a doctor called into question. In social conversation, upon answering the query of what he does for a living by stating that he is, in fact, a physician, he’s had to confront the response that suggested he should be playing basketball. On an airplane journey, he’s been asked to produce his medical license during an on-board medical emergency after answering a call for the aid of a doctor.
It’s been demoralizing to the point he now often refuses to identify himself as the senior medical professional that he is in certain social and everyday-life scenarios.
Yet, Rowe, professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California and a faculty member of the USC Cardiac and Vascular Institute, is philosophical about the differences between individual slights and the more insidious presence of systemic racism—and what it all means.
“It’s hard to categorize whether just a few individual negative interactions characterize systemic racism,” he says. “I’ve had things said to me from when I was in Tennessee all the way to just a month ago. Things that were racially insensitive and hurtful. But I don’t know if that means I’m experiencing the systemic problem.”
But ostensibly small—or sometimes subtle— instances of discrimination could mount up into something more.
“For example, over the years, when I walked into a patient’s room, in clinic or in the hospital, there were numerous times where I felt I wasn’t the doctor,” Rowe says. “They would comment to me, ‘Oh, when is the doctor coming?’ Or, ‘Who are you?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I’m Dr. Rowe.’ Or even just the comment of, ‘Oh, why are you a doctor? You look like you should be playing basketball.’ Why? Because I’m a tall Black male, I can’t be a doctor—I have to be a basketball player?”
Over the course of time, Rowe says, such discourse wore him down.
“When I would travel on vacation with my wife, if I started a conversation on a plane with someone, they would ask, ‘What do you do?’ And I would say, ‘I’m a doctor.’ It was as if they couldn’t believe it, so they would have to keep asking me. Questions, questions, questions to solidify the fact that I actually was a doctor.
It got to the point that when we traveled, or even when I was around the city, or we were at an event, and we started a conversation with people where they asked me what I did, I wouldn’t say I was a physician. I would say I was an actor, struggling actor, or an electrician, and then I wouldn’t get any additional questions.”
The more visceral aspects of systemic racism—like the stop-and-frisk and profiling actions of police—were omnipresent when he was a student. “I got pulled over [driving] numerous times by policemen because of that during college and medical school especially. All of those things have always happened, and those to me are the more systemic parts.”
As a surgeon in Los Angeles, he has witnessed healthcare disparities along racial lines from both a clinical point of view and from the vantage point of a researcher. Over time, he took a special interest in race-related vascular disease outcomes.
“When I started working at our county facility, I saw there was a significant amount of poverty and patients representing with diseases much more out of control than in our private facility,” Rowe explains.
“It was somewhat interesting to me to see that the patients seemed to have in some areas different outcomes based on race. That’s when I started looking at least at lower extremity disease on the outcomes of patients based on race.
“I published a few articles, but I never was able to really, clearly define it with a large grant and a big multicenter institutional study. We just took part in a national study called the BEST trial—the best endovascular or surgical treatment for patients with lower extremity disease—and I’m hoping that that national randomized trial that our institution was a part of will be able to find a more precise answer to the differences in outcomes based on race for patients with lower extremity disease.”
The country has lived these moments of consciousness over racial disparities before, only for the zeitgeist to move on, but he sees the storm that followed the killing of George Floyd by police as one that will prove to be more enduring.
“I think the majority of America is in a more accepting state and a different mindset,” explains Rowe. “I think a lot of that has to do with the #MeToo movement. I think America finally said, ‘Look, we’re going to stop this harassment of women that’s been occurring, and we’re going to look into the past. We’re going to not only look into it and say it’s wrong, but we’re going to prosecute people for it.’”
The consequences of that movement, Rowe continues, opened up a sensitivity in the country, creating fertile ground for change in other areas of the culture. “It’s at a good time that that mindset of America is still open toward racial inequity. There’s going to be some change—I don’t know how much—but I think there will be.
“I’ve been talking about this a lot. For 20 years, I only talked about science and now I’m talking about race. America is ready for it. There’s going to be some backlash. But it’s going to come from a very small group. The #MeToo movement prepared us because it has really cracked open some atrocities that were happening to women.”
Rowe then turns to a useful metaphor that underscores the stalking effect of race as having any sort of bearing on a person’s life. “You don’t want things to have an impact based on your race,” he says. “But you’re always thinking about it. It’s almost like the app on your phone that’s always running in the background. Maybe you don’t press to use it, and you hope you don’t have to, but it’s still running in the background and it’s draining your battery.
“That’s the analogy. It’s in the background, I guess it’s still there but it’s draining you a bit. Hopefully you go through days and days without it ever asserting itself. But you still always wonder because it’s back there in your mind. That’s how it feels.”
Very interesting person. Thank you, good Doctor.
Also, excellently written article.
As always..on point!! Excellent article, Dr. Rowe!
I’ve known Vincent and his family since he was a kid. His parents were friends of my wife’s parents. Many kids we knew went to his mother’s preschool and others were patients of his father, also a noted physician. Vince comes from good stock and a family rooted in God’s love. I’m so proud of him and how God has elevated and blessed him with professional and personal success!—cb
Dr Vincent Rowe! The Doctor that saved my life and the use of my legs. Freed from the pain and medications that I was told would be a part of the rest of my life. I’m forever grateful! Great article. Continued Blessings to you and your family!
2020…Amazing! Powerful message shared in your article! Continue to take a stand! Keep looking up! Gods got you🙏🏾
Excellent insight and encouraging a hope that things will change for the better!
I have wondered for a long time what happened to Vincent, pardon me Dr. Vincent Rowe. His father, Dr. Lopez Rowe, once took me on rounds with him in Los Angeles when I was a first year medical student at Loma Linda University. That was an unforgettable experience. His mother, Ms.Carmella Rowe, made sure I was spiritually grounded to meet the racial stresses that lay ahead at my school and beyond. Dr. Vincent Rowe, you are well prepared, and you are meeting the racial challenges with class. Keep it up. You are an inspiration. Some of what you have experienced is based on innocent ignorance not knowing any better. Much, though, is the result of willful ignorance. Let me stay in my ignorance.
Great article Dr Rowe, so proud of you. You know sho you are.
Love the article. First met Dr. Rowe in 2003 when I was working as a CNA on the vascular floor at General Hospital. His bedside manners is what stood out to me. I use to hear him tell patients that he would come by and check on them in the morning and he would. Great insight and hopefully a change will come.
Unbelievable, that in the 21st century, the evil and that is racism still exists. For a bit, I was not sympathetic to the folks who would loot and destroy during protests until someone explained the motivations behind these acts. I still don’t think it’s right but those folks were always denied the opportunity to shine because of the color of their skin.
I was saddened to hear that one of my respected Peers felt the need to share his experiences, but am not surprised given the continued climate of our Culture and narrow mindedness.
Any patient or person in the presence of Dr. Rowe should never have to question his “Credentials” or “Integrity”!
Having Dr Rowe perform my relatively minor surgery has been an honor. I am a long-time RN at the same hospital, he is elegant, caring and an extraordinary surgeon. I have great respect for his speaking out. Thank you.