Pershing’s Persistence

From The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson:

He was noticing it more and more, like how, whenever a white woman needed surgery, they never let him in the operating room. They sent him over to operate on the men. It was Jim Crow all over again, and he thought again about his short- and long-term prospects. It was reminding him that he had a decision to make. When he got out of the army, he would get as far away from Jim Crow’s disciples as he could.

For now he had no choice. He was under these people and had to make the best of it. He pushed the hurt and anger inside himself and decided that if all they would let him do was take somebody’s pulse, he would take it better than any doctor there. And so he doted on the few patients he got.

“I treated every white boy like he was the king of Siam,” he said, “and didn’t lose dignity. It’s a fine art.”

It all changed one day when a woman in labor suddenly stopped contracting. It was another doctor’s patient, the one who had intervened when he thought Pershing had let a labor go on too long. The doctor was getting second opinions and let Pershing come in this time. Pershing saw the woman on the operating table in preparation for a C-section.

He looked the patient over and gave his diagnosis.

“She’s in uterine inertia,” Pershing said. “The uterus is tired. It’s stopped pushing. You need to start a glucose drip of Pitocin to make the uterus start contracting.” The doctor decided to try it. The nurses later went to Pershing and gave him the news.

“The baby’s crawling,” they said. “The baby came.”

One evening soon afterward, he and Alice were at dinner in the officers’ club. The waiter asked what they were drinking and soon reappeared with another round.

“Compliments of the lieutenant over there,” the waiter said.

Pershing reached for Alice’s hand. They danced their way over to the table where the lieutenant, a white man from Kentucky, was sitting with his wife.

“You wouldn’t remember me,” the wife said. “But I’m the patient whose baby you just delivered. I must give you a kiss for saving me from a C-section.”

She gave him a kiss in front of everyone.

“You were the talk of the commissary,” she said.

People were taking notice. He was young, charming, and brilliant. People saw him in line and tittered about him.

“I hear we got a new doctor, and he’s colored,” people were saying.

“Would you have a colored doctor deliver your baby?” somebody else would throw in.

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