The Delta Doctor Incident

An African-American doctor was asked for proof of her medical licensure.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

Last week, there was a sick woman on a Delta flight from Indianapolis to Boston, and Dr. Fatima Stanford was there to help. Dr. Stanford isn’t just any doctor. She is a Harvard doctor with accolades that would make other doctors green with envy.

When the flight attendants asked if any doctors were on board, she volunteered. But before she could tend to the sick woman, she was asked to provide her medical license not once, but twice, according to The New York Times.  

Why? Dr. Fatima Stanford did not look like a doctor to the Delta Airlines flight attendants. Presumably, they were unaware that doctors are not all white men.

It is not uncommon for doctors onboard a flight to ignore a call for help. This is the unfortunate reality due to liability concerns, and it’s something I also have first-hand knowledge of.

When I was 32 weeks pregnant, I was “that woman” who went into labor on an airplane. I was traveling with my (at the time) 4-year-old daughter, Lila, my husband, Jay, and my 18-month-old daughter, Coco.  

Jay and Coco were seated in the back of coach.  Lila and I were in the front of coach. When my water broke, I said nothing because I did not want to return to our former destination, so I waited until we were half-way home to notify my daughter, Lila, and ask her to tell my husband who was seated many rows behind us.  

When the flight attendants heard about my situation, they moved me up to first class and asked if there were any medical professionals on board. Two white men stepped forward. The flight attendants were grateful that doctors were on the case. Nobody asked to see a medical license once, let alone twice. Nobody questioned their authority or wondered if they were legit.

Dr. Stanford stepped forward on that Delta flight to attend a passenger in need. She didn’t have to say anything and she could have said nothing, but she had taken an oath to help and she did what she promised she would do.

Her good deed did not go unpunished.  She was the recipient of racial profiling and implicit bias. As a white female surgeon, I do not walk in her shoes, but I do stand next to her.  

I am one of the 6% of women board certified in orthopaedic surgery in the United States.  When I offer my care outside of the confines of my office or operating room, I am also questioned. I am also asked for a license or proof that I have medical knowledge. This has to stop.  

This is a time for physicians to stand together.  Equality in medical care is essential for the safety and best care of patients everywhere, not just on airplanes.