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California Clinic Doctor Talks About His Challenging Year Working During Pandemic


Dr. Desmond Carson's face was masked at a press conference last summer, but his pain and frustration were strong and clear.


DESMOND CARSON: We had the National Guard come out to stem non-violent protesters who've killed no one. We need the National Guard to come out to tell these fools who don't want to wear masks that you're going to wear the mask, or you're going to go home. Our rights to not wear a mask, our right - that [expletive] is going to kill us.

SIMON: Dr. Carson treats patients for Lifelong Medical Care at a clinic in Richmond, Calif., in the Bay Area, where he grew up. COVID cases peaked a few weeks after that press conference, and then that peak was succeeded by a winter surge. It has been a crucial and challenging year to work in medicine.

Dr. Desmond Carson joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

CARSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Bet you've had to have a lot of difficult conversations with patients - haven't you? - this year.

CARSON: Patients, friends, students alike.

SIMON: Help us understand that, if you could. What are some of the things you've had to say?

CARSON: So just from the beginning of the potential epidemic all the way through where we are right now, the conversations have changed from - that we need to try to prevent transmission. My conversation now is trying to motivate people to get the vaccine, and particularly among Black and brown folks, where there is some anxiety - well-deserved anxiety, albeit. My point of view now is that, hey, y'all, we got to look at the data objectively and say, hey, what does the data show? And the data shows that people have died - Black, brown, white, et cetera - and that Black and brown folks are dying more. We need to sign up and line up to get this vaccine. So that's how my conversation has changed within my community as this pandemic has progressed.

SIMON: And help us get to know your community and your patients.

CARSON: So where I practice at, at LifeLong, we are a FQHC, federally qualified health care center, that takes care of poor people. Most of them are Black and brown. Most of them are Spanish-speaking at the exact location where I'm at. But when you look at the whole facility of LifeLong, we go from past East Oakland all the way over here to the northern part of the San Francisco Bay, where it's a large population of Latino patients that I see.

SIMON: I wish I knew of a more decorous way to ask this question, but have you seen a lot of people die this past year?

CARSON: Unfortunately, I have. And when you talk about people not believing - 'cause people don't believe fat meat is greasy, right? But it is greasy once you realize it. And so a couple of my friends, my homeboys, people I was raised with, local people, you know, the people we play basketball and football with, when those people start losing family members - my homeboy, Vince, he lost his wife. And then everybody in the neighborhood hears about it - hey, man, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah lost his wife - then it becomes real.

SIMON: Your clinic's doing vaccinations now, I gather.

CARSON: Yes, sir.

SIMON: How's that going?

CARSON: Well, yesterday, I lost my parking space because we were so crowded, which - I was sort of happy that there was that many people lining up and coming to get the vaccine. I was apprehensive about the vaccine at first just because I'm a Black man, right? And I know...

SIMON: Yeah.

CARSON: ...About Tuskegee. So what I did - I read the literature from New England Journal of Medicine about Pfizer vaccine. And it gave me a sense of comfort about efficacy and side effects. I'm a diabetic, hypertensive, Black male - regardless of the HIPAA of violations I just said, this was just me.

SIMON: It'll be just between us, doctor.

CARSON: Yeah, it'll just be between us, man. Once I got it, then I started telling everybody else, hey, y'all, I think this is the real deal. Besides the protocols of not transmitting, the distancing, the mask, blah, blah, blah, now we need to get this vaccine.

SIMON: Dr. Carson, it - just talking to you, I feel - honestly, I feel I should thank you. This must have been an incredibly difficult year. And your work and your outspokenness and your concern for others, no matter how many people you lost, I think you also - you and your colleagues saved lives.

CARSON: Let me say something else, too, man. I am so proud of my clinic. Under the table was some providers who said they would not come to work because they were scared of transmission. My team - I am just so proud of them, man. They came and said, oh, hell, no. We are going to see all these patients. Most of my team are raised right here in Richmond. They never once doubted whether or not they was coming to work. So I'm just so proud of my team, man.

SIMON: Dr. Desmond Carson - a doctor, Richmond, Calif. - thank you so much for being with us, sir.

CARSON: Have a good day. I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.