Allyship, Medicine and Meditation

Dr. Karolynn Echols shares how her experience as a Black woman in America shapes her allyship with her patients, including those within the LGBTQ+ community.

Dr. Karolynn Echols, director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, was driving back to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after surgery at Jefferson Methodist Hospital. Philadelphia was on lockdown due to the protests after the murder of George Floyd. Jefferson employees received an email stating that they only needed to show their ID to pass police barricades and access the city.

“The car in front of me passed by the police check at I-676 West from I-95 North, but I was asked to stop,” she says. “I showed the police officer my ID, letting him know that I lived in the city and was on my way to Jefferson coming from the OR at Methodist Hospital. He told me I would have to go around.”

Dr. Echols questioned the officer, after seeing the car in front of her pass right through into the city, and expressed her time crunch to get to the hospital.

It got to a point where we were going back and forth. I suddenly noticed that I was feeling a little fearful because he was getting angrier. I told him that this is why people are angry. I told him that he was a part of the problem.

As she turned her car around, Dr. Echols remembers the officer sarcastically telling her to stay safe.

Dr. Echols faces discrimination and racism as a Black woman, and in turn, she knows what it means to be an ally to others who also face this ugly reality. When the opportunity to be featured on a list of “out” or “ally” physicians on a new Jefferson Health website dedicated to LGBTQ+ care, there wasn’t a question that she would be listed. We talked with Dr. Echols about what allyship means to her and how she takes care of herself so that she can help others.

I’m sorry for your interaction with the officer. He should have let you pass into the city.

Instances like the one with the officer have been happening my whole life. I am a resilient person though and won’t give up. I think that is why I was asked to organize an Equity and Empowerment working group for my department in OB-GYN.

People who are comfortable with non-equality, people who treat other people differently for whatever reason, it’s something that they need to recognize, something they need to be able to be uncomfortable in, in order to get comfortable with the truth.

Unfortunately, the Black community and the LGBTQ+ community are vulnerable to stigmas and discrimination. And if you are Black and LGBTQ+ you are that much more prone to violence.

How do you define resiliency?

Basically, the short answer is to get over it. I really look at it that way. I mean, of course, there are some things that you have to do something about, but you just overcome adversity quickly. However you need to overcome adversity, you do it within reason, of course. I remind myself there’s always somebody out there who has it a lot worse than I do. I have two hands, two legs, a brain, two eyes and ears. I can do something.

Before I found meditation, I would talk to myself. In a stressful situation, I’ll say to myself, “you’re important. You got this.” That’s how I push myself through. It’s always cool to be surrounded by people who support you, but you know they’re not always around, so I need to be there for myself, too.

You identify as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. What does that mean to you?

I’ve always been an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I have always believed that we shouldn’t treat anybody differently, no matter their sexual preference, gender, age or race. I know that more than a lot of people because I’m Black.

In college and right after college, ballroom culture was part of my scene, and if you’ve watched an episode of “Pose” on Netflix, you’ll understand what I mean. That time in New York City brings back so many good memories. It also brings back memories of me and my friends going to a diner and being turned away. I didn’t understand. They were my friends and they weren’t hurting anyone. What was the problem? The violence against transgender transsexuals existed then and it is still happening today. It needs to stop.

Dr. Karolynn Echols with her mother in Philadelphia
Dr. Karolynn Echols with her mother

What does it mean to you to treat patients within this community?

Healthcare disparities in the LGBTQ+ community exist, but I treat all my patients equally. Everyone is a person just like me. I love urogynecology because I treat conditions that improve quality of life. If you have gynecological issues or pelvic floor disorders, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight or bi, it’s bothersome.

I think a major factor in patient care is establishing trust and open communication. When I take a patient’s history, I’m not working down a list of questions, it’s more of a conversation to get to know each other. There are things in medical school that just aren’t taught. For instance, I ask my patient’s sexual preference upfront now because when I ask about their sexual relationships, I don’t assume their partners are a “he.” That would be assuming gender and sexual preference, right? There are parts of people that aren’t on their medical record and it’s important as a physician to really get to know who our patients are. It needs to become a habit to approach patient care with this awareness and sensitivity.

Sometimes I forget that I have my Jefferson pride pin on my lanyard and a patient will thank me for being supportive. It’s nice that they know that.

How do you take care of yourself, both physically and mentally, while processing and experiencing what is happening in this world on top of treating patients?

I take a class on my Peloton bike every day before work. Some days it is easy to get up. For the other days, it’s the texts from my friends in the class that motivate me to get on the bike. It helps me get any aggression or tension out of my body. Beta endorphins are real. My coworkers can always tell if I didn’t ride in the morning. Afterward, I meditate to get my mind right.

I’m also very conscious of what I eat. I read the nutritional label and ingredients list on everything I buy. I know exactly what I’m putting in my body. That isn’t to say I never cheat, but I know when I do, I’m going to feel horrible. My 89-year-old mom lives with my husband and me in Old City and she loves chocolate. I make sure she’s eating the good stuff, not the cheap chocolate. She always wants to give me a hug when I get home at the end of the day, but I dodge her until I can get into the shower. I’m worried about bringing COVID-19 home with me.

I try to be as healthy as I can mentally, physically and emotionally. I believe by doing that, it promotes an aura that then everybody wants to be a part of. That kind of energy is a powerful agent for real change.

Tell me more about your relationship with your mom.

My mother has her Master’s of Science in Nursing and is retired. She was living with my dad in Long Island and before he passed in 2015, he noticed that her memory was going. He would say, “your momma forgets a lot.” It wasn’t that bad back then. After my dad passed, my older brother went to visit her one winter and found her on her stairs. She had been there for a whole day. She had broken her hip. He called me and I got over there. My brother and I went to my mom’s house and I just knew we had to get her out of there. There was old food in the fridge. My father had always cooked for her. At first, I didn’t know what to do but I knew I had to get her out of the house. My husband was the one who suggested that she live with us. And so she did. I went almost every weekend to pack her up slowly and organize things. We listed her house in the summer of 2016 and it sold in six weeks. She then moved in with my husband and me, and my dog, in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo. Can you imagine?

In 2017, a townhouse in the city came on the market. My husband and I went to look at it and fell in love. It had a beautiful yard. We put a bid on it and moved in September. My mom now has her own floor.

Caretaking for your mother has to be both fulfilling but also hard at the same time.

It is. She has dementia and it’s not terrible—she knows not to go outside—but her short-term memory is bad. I have to remind her to take showers—things like that. She’ll ask me the same question 10 to15 times. It’s hard to see her like that. She knows what’s happening to her and sometimes she gets upset. She’s getting up there. She’s 89.

But she knows not to go outside unless she’s letting my dog out in the backyard. And the neighborhood looks out for her. We recently had a little socially distanced birthday party for her. A few neighbors came over and I had food and drinks set up outside, along with masks in case people forgot theirs. We were all socially distanced and my mom was really happy. I had to keep reminding her not to yank up her shield, but she loved it. The neighbors brought her favorite things as gifts—flowers and candy.

After we sang happy birthday, I took the candles out of the cake for her to blow off to the side. Because you know, 2020 and the pandemic.

So it’s good. It’s a good fit for all of us.

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