Celebrating Black History month with Dr. Percy McDonald, Board Certified Otolaryngologist

Feel Good, Our Physicians

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Chicago and raised in the Cabrini-Green housing projects by a single mom. I was born during the time when all hospitals and many parts of Chicago were segregated. My mom worked as a domestic, bringing home $9 a day and my dad worked as a laborer in a produce market. They were separated but my brothers and I would spend time with him. My mom taught me at a very young age that if I didn’t like the way we were treated, the only way to escape it was to get an education.

What inspired you to become a physician?

I had two black physicians as a child who inspired me. Something about what they did absolutely fascinated me. The family physician who delivered me and provided all my childhood care was black; and in those days, black physicians were not allowed privileges in white hospitals in Chicago. The other was an ophthalmologist who also happened to be black, and he was brilliant. He was one of the first blacks to attend the University of Chicago medical school. He wasn’t accepted at the University as an intern because of segregation, so he ended up at Wayne State DMC where he studied ophthalmology. By the time he was done with his training, things started to change a bit and he came back to Chicago. He ended up being a professor at the University of Chicago and was a teacher there for over 40 years.

What challenges did you encounter as an African American during your training?

The biggest challenge for me was not seeing very many people who looked like me throughout my training. That was a big issue, because of course, they didn’t understand the culture that I came from.

I’ve had just enough people in my life who have given me positive strokes, many of them were white and some were black, but their encouragement is what got me here. I had teachers who wanted me to go to a college prep high school and that was the first time I had a black teacher. When I attended the University of Illinois Medical School in the 1970s, there were only two other black men enrolled in the medical school.

During my internship at Youngstown, a doctor encouraged me to train for my specialty at Cleveland Clinic. He said to me, “the more you have going for you, the more you have going for you. You are going to need everything you can get, and the name of that institution is going to open doors that otherwise may not be open for you.” So, I went! I was the first black ENT resident at the Cleveland Clinic, and I was treated very well there.

How do you use your position as a physician to help change the feelings of mistrust, inequity and disparity that many minority groups have toward the healthcare system?

When I was younger, Blacks did not have access to medical care unless they went to a black physician. There was very little medical education in the black community. Many blacks also don’t trust the medical system, relating back to the Tuskegee experiments.

When COVID hit, I would sit down with my patients and explain the importance of the COVID vaccine and encourage my patients to take advantage of it. People were very resistant. If they were unsure, I would recommend they do a little research. The medical community has not done a good job of providing equal access to doctors and explaining things. It’s a lot easier when you have people who look like you, because they understand your culture.

How can we become better advocates for each other and the communities we serve?

You don’t want to become colorblind, regardless of who the minority is. You want to see that group as who they are and try to learn something about their culture. If you’re colorblind you are going to miss a lot. Not being colorblind does not make you a racist.

What advice do you give others who would like to pursue a career in the medical field?

Go for it if that is what you really want, and you’ll achieve it. It is difficult, no matter the profession, but I explain that you need to concentrate on your education.

I try to encourage them to get as much education as possible, which gives you so many options. If you don’t know what you want to do, go to community college and take general courses. That right there opens doors for you.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History month is a time where I reflect on growing up during the civil rights era. I look at the present and what is happening (or not happening) and try to get an idea of what is down the line in the future. Fortunately, I have lived history. I don’t have to google it. And that is great. For kids now a days, it is important that they learn about our history including slavery and racism. I don’t understand the mentality of skipping the bad stuff, like it would go away. It is important that people learn about themselves and not try to erase history. Knowledge is power.