the harsh reality of an Asian doctor during COVID-19.

By Lucy T. Li, MD

It was mid-March in Boston. I had spent my day in the operating room providing anesthesia for patients

undergoing thoracic surgery including bronchoscopies, an aerosol-generating procedure of particular risk

in releasing respiratory particles that could transmit coronavirus particles. The threat of COVID-19 was

setting in across the country, and elective surgical cases were beginning to dwindle in number. Given the

risk of the procedures I was present for that day, I decided to shower in the locker room before I headed

home unexpectedly early in the afternoon. As I walked out of work, snow flurries blew around me and I

put the hood of my winter coat up around my face to cover my wet hair. It was still broad daylight, and as

I rounded a corner by the hospital entrance, I could see out of the corner of my eye a man in black

clothing crossing the street towards me. With the hood on, I could not hear him at first, but as he got

closer to me, the words became clear: “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone? What is wrong with

YOU? Why the f---... Are you killing us?”

At this point he was right behind me, his verbal assault growing louder and louder. I began to book it and

pretended I could not see or hear him, but he followed me, shouting more curses and racially-charged

slurs, until he gave up after a block. I continued walking quickly until I made it to a grocery store on the

way to the subway, focused on putting as much distance as possible between him and me.

My emotions roiled with terror, sadness, fear, hot-blooded anger – anger at the sheer irony of his tirade

accusing me and my ethnicity, despite my work caring for patients day in and day out, no matter who they

are, no matter what their illness, no matter the risk to myself. I know I am far from the first and far from

the last person attacked by xenophobia during this pandemic. We know that there has been a dramatic

surge in discrimination and hate crimes towards Asians. We know that for every one of these reports,

there are more that go unsaid. And we know that intolerant anti-Asian rhetoric from political leaders fuels

the harassment.

So what can we do? How do we challenge and disrupt this kind of behavior in the context of COVID-19?

How do we support and protect and advocate for each other?

When racist behavior occurs, it must be reported and called out for what it is, every single time.

Publicizing these incidents increases their visibility and raises awareness that these xenophobic attacks

are a real problem that must be addressed. Once I was safe at the grocery store, I called the hospital

security department, my residency program director, and our department chair. Shortly thereafter, the vice

president and chief equity inclusion officer at our hospital contacted me and included my story in the

daily COVID-19 update email to the entire system of over 27,000 employees, condemning the behavior,

provide guidance on how to be safe, call out, and report incidents, and reminding everyone of how to

access mental health services and other support systems at the hospital. I was invited to an institution-

wide webinar to give a first-hand account of my story and to discuss racism against Asians during COVID-19, which was broadcast to the entire hospital community.

In all times, and especially now with social and physical distancing, it is crucial for us to treat each other

with empathy, respect, and kindness, to reach out and make sure others are okay. When my colleagues

became aware of what occurred, I was flooded with texts and phone calls checking in, offering support.

Friends shared with me that they themselves were victims of anti-Asian attacks from strangers on the

subway and even their own patients telling them to go back to their country. While saddened and angry to

hear of each other’s experiences, we no longer felt alone, and encouraged each other to share our stories.

Intolerance and racism are never acceptable, and it is on every person to rally against it and in support of

victims. Everyone has a part to play in creating a community that fosters respect and dignity.


Lucy T. Li, MD

Resident Physician, Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the opinions of my employer

Dr. Lucy Li currently works at Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard University as a resident and will be specializing in Pediatric Anesthesia. She has graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and graduated from Princeton University. She is set to graduate from her Residency program in 2021.