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Health, safety and racism: Two Asian-American dentists share concerns over COVID-19 crisis

April 07, 2020
Photo of Dr. Kim
Dr. Kim
As new dentists try to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, they may face challenges that are unique compared to their more seasoned counterparts. The ADA New Dentist News interviewed two graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership — Dr. Mina C. Kim, a general practitioner and private practice owner, and Dr. Michelle Aguilos Thompson, a full-time faculty member — about their personal experiences.

NDN: What fears do you have associated with COVID-19 and being a dentist?

Dr. Kim: As an owner of a private practice, I face the same fears as many of you. When I am called to see an asymptomatic emergency patient that is a carrier of COVID-19, what if I get infected and spread it to my family? Will my loved ones stay healthy through this crisis? How will my business, employees and I survive this difficult time?

Dr. Thompson: As a full-time faculty, I worry for my students and my colleagues. When will the seniors be able to walk to across that stage and graduate? With transitioning to a completely online curriculum, how will the students grasp this knowledge? Dentistry is hands-on. I am also a mother of a 2-year-old and a daughter of a severely immunocompromised mother. My husband is an endodontist and I worry that he does not have sufficient PPE to protect himself and us. What is going to happen when we finally are able to return to our offices/schools? Will we be safe?

Photo of Dr. Thompson
Dr. Thompson
NDN: Are there any other concerns you have?

Dr. Kim: I also am worried about the possibility of a racist attack against my family and me. Even though a person’s ethnicity has nothing to do with contracting or transmitting this disease, physical violence against Asians is growing more and more common as COVID-19 rapidly spreads throughout the United States. Difficult times bring out the best and worst in people, and unfortunately as a Korean-American, I have seen firsthand the hatred towards Asians.

Last week, two men behind me started saying hello to me in different Asian languages. When I ignored them, they yelled at me, “You dirty little [insert racist slur]!”

My normal response to these situations is to fight back, but lately there are many reports of violence against Asians, so I am afraid to retaliate and hold my tongue. Although in my situation, COVID-19 was not mentioned, I feel that the recent online jokes and comments like “China virus” and “Kung flu” from our governmental leaders and reported in the media make people believe that racist behavior is acceptable.

Now, at night I walk my puppy, Vito, an hour earlier and always with my husband. I look around the street to see who else is there. I rarely travel anywhere alone. On one of Vito’s walks, I ran into a neighbor, who is a physician of Asian descent, and her large dog. She had two incidents in the past week where she was told to wear a mask and her dog was branded a “COVID dog.” She now takes a cab to work every day rather than public transportation and never walks her large dog alone. We are both worried that these incidents will become more commonplace and eventually escalate from a verbal to physical attack. It has placed a roadblock to our freedom.

NDN: This is really horrible to hear. Dr. Thompson, have you had a similar experience?

Dr. Thompson: I was on a flight a few weeks ago sitting in the window seat and the passenger next to me kept asking me questions, "Are you sick? Do you have infection?" etc. The entire flight she leaned toward her husband and even wrapped her head and wore a mask as soon as she saw me. She automatically turned away from me. The world is changing and I'm worried.

NDN: How can the ADA, as your professional association, help in these cases?

Dr. Thompson: The ADA is for everyone, and we are at a point where leadership is finally beginning to reflect the diversity of its members, but we still have a long way to go. I believe it is important as a member to be active so that I can be part of this change. I'm thankful that the ADA embraces our differences.  

Dr. Kim: The ADA counts diversity and inclusion among its core values and recognized the importance of protecting and including all their members. One of the ways it demonstrates this is by having a Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I feel that raising awareness of issues that members are facing is incredibly important.

As any minority — whether ethnic, religious, sexual orientation — will tell you, we have heard the discriminatory comments since we were young. By adulthood, many of us have experienced so many incidents, that we develop an immunity to such comments. However, these comments and actions should make us upset and angry because they are wrong.

NDN: How has your life changed since the stay-at-home orders?

Dr. Kim: Despite all my concerns, staying at home has had a silver lining. It’s been an opportunity to make time for myself, my husband and puppy. I am finally tackling the list of things I wanted to take care of at my office when I have time. I am learning French on Duolingo and taking an online marketing class at Wharton. Other projects I have also tried and failed at are dog grooming, crocheting and cleaning my apartment.

Dr. Thompson: This is the first time since my son was born that I have been able to spend this much time with him. Learning to be a stay-at-home-mom has been a challenge but I'm learning every day.  From bubble time fun and bike riding to dancing and singing, we have enjoyed this special time together.

Dr. Michelle Aguilos Thompson is a full-time Assistant Professor and Director of Digital Dentistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Dentistry at Houston. She graduated from Howard University College of Dentistry in 2012 and completed a 2-year General Practice Residency at UTSD Houston.  She is an alumni of the ADA’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership program, where she created a guide for local components to start diversity committees. Currently, Dr. Thompson serves in the ADA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Texas Dental Association’s Strategic Affairs Committee and the Greater Houston Dental Society’s Board of Directors. She is married to Dr. Jason Thompson, an endodontist and has a 3-year-old son, Jason Jr. If you are interested in starting a diversity committee in your local component or state association, contact her directly for information at Michelle.a.thompson@uth.tmc.edu.

Dr. Mina C. Kim graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine and did her residency at New York Methodist Hospital. Since completing her studies, Dr. Kim has gone on to become a dentist at Bryant Park Dental Associates, co-founded the Woman to Woman Dentist Network, was a previous Fellow of the ADA Institute for Diversity and Leadership and currently serves on the ADA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. She is also the secretary at the New York County Dental Society. Dr. Kim has guest lectured at Harvard University School of Dental Medicine, is an executive board member on Columbia’s Alumni Association, and serves on the Dean’s Strategic Advisory Committee at New York University College of Dentistry. She is one of the founders of NYCDS’s Give Kids A Smile Day event, mentor and has made appearances on daytime talk show, The Dr. Oz Show in 2016 and 2017.