How A Black Doctor Sparked A Racial Reckoning At Tulane

One night early in her residency, Okeke said, she took a group of applicants to a party at Wiese’s mansion in the oak-lined Garden District. After their host opened the door, he introduced himself to the prospects — and to her.

“He started shaking my hand,” Okeke said. Because Wiese didn’t seem to recognize her, she concluded that he must not know she was a current resident. She remembered trying to laugh off the awkwardness she felt: “Dr. Wiese, you’re so funny.”

Black med-peds residents tended to have one of two impressions of Wiese, according to seven of them whose time at Tulane spanned a total of 13 years. Some said their interactions were nonexistent, or brief but positive: One remembered him as “very cordial and pleasant.” But others said that Wiese never called them by name, to the point that it was offensive. “He never acknowledged my presence,” said Chioma Udemgba, who graduated in 2020. “It’s a small thing, but it speaks a lot.”

In her lawsuit, Okeke cited the handshake and other, similar interactions as evidence of Wiese treating her unfavorably because of her race. Wiese denied that he racially discriminated against her. Tulane’s attorneys argued that there was “nothing objectively offensive about these events.”

Nonwhite physicians are much more likely than white physicians to leave a job due to what they say is discrimination. At academic medical centers, which combine clinical care, research, and teaching, underrepresented minority faculty members have little mentorship, report facing racial bias, and have lower odds of being promoted, studies show.

Emergency physician Uché Blackstock, formerly of New York University’s medical school, said racism and sexism drove her to leave the faculty in 2019. (An NYU spokesperson said, “We are wholly committed to fostering an inclusive workplace and take all allegations of racism and sexism with the utmost seriousness.”) Pediatrician Benjamin Danielson resigned from a Seattle clinic in 2020, citing racism in its parent organization, a concern that an investigation found to hold merit. (A Seattle Children’s Hospital representative said that it is pursuing a new equity plan as a result.)

That same year, Aysha Khoury alleged that she was suspended, then let go, from Kaiser Permanente’s medical school after leading a student discussion about racism in medicine. An email told her that her suspension “was prompted by a complaint about certain classroom activities,” according to a lawsuit she filed. (A Kaiser spokesperson said, “We strongly disagree with Dr. Khoury’s characterization of events or any assertion that she was removed from her role because of anything to do with race or racism,” and that Kaiser encourages faculty members to share their experiences about those subjects. The spokesperson said the company could not elaborate on Khoury’s claims due to the pending litigation.)

“We’re not at decision-making tables,” Khoury said of Black doctors. “We’re not treated the same way. We’re not as protected in the same way as our counterparts.”

But proving that this kind of treatment is illegal discrimination can be deeply challenging.

While at Tulane, Okeke said she was constantly taken off shifts or asked to be taken off shifts to cover for others. “Every time they needed someone, I was pulled,” she said. She claimed the internal medicine chiefs denied her request to block out time for a rheumatology research conference — while their own residents seemed to have no problem getting such trips scheduled — and that she had to find replacements for her shifts herself. When she wanted to train at an out-of-state hospital for a month, she said, she was told she must use vacation time to get paid, even though a white resident in internal medicine told her that he didn’t have to use his off days to get paid for a rotation outside Tulane.

Tulane’s attorneys argued that there was no evidence that “any of these ‘slights’ related to her race or gender,” and that Okeke was overlooking other factors that could explain the differences. They said that there was no evidence that she was disproportionately called on for backup — schedules made public in litigation do not reflect such last-minute changes — and that there was “only one time” she had trouble getting coverage for herself. They pointed out that the internal medicine resident was in a global health track that paid for him to do research abroad, and that half of her time away got funded in the end.

These complaints were not universal among residents of color. “I can’t really say I personally felt like I was being treated different because I was Black,” said Darlonda Harris, a med-peds resident who graduated in 2017. Gifty-Maria Ntim, a Black alumnus from the 2011 class, said that she was able to easily resolve the few scheduling issues she had. Christopher Salmon, a biracial internal medicine resident who graduated in 2019, said that Wiese had supported his desire to become a cardiologist. “He was actually a big pull for me to be here,” Salmon said.

One Monday in May 2017, not long after the schedules were released, dozens of residents, including from med-peds, gathered in a classroom for their weekly medical lecture, to be delivered that day by Wiese.

According to Okeke, Watts, and Clark, Wiese proceeded to scold certain residents — everyone knew he meant them specifically, they said — for complaining about ER time. He said that people needed to be “team players” and dared the audience to report him to the ACGME, adding that he would take “a slap on the wrist,” according to lawsuit filings, affidavits, and interviews with the three residents. “The buck stops here. I control the schedule,” Watts recalled him saying.

“It came out of the blue, completely out of the blue. We were shocked,” Clark told me.

Wiese has said that he was trying to emphasize that “everybody” needed to do their share of work and denied challenging anyone to contact the ACGME. “I think what was communicated in that meeting is that we were satisfying this detailed requirement in different ways,” he said in a deposition.