Ob/Gyn Dispatches During COVID-19: Pearl J. Lim, MD

Each day during the COVID-19 pandemic, we'll share an update from a member of our team in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Today's note is from Pearl J. Lim, MD, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at CUMC and NYP/Lawrence Hospital.

In 1992, when I was 23, I visited South Korea for the first time. As a Korean-American, the first in my family born in the U.S., I never imagined a country where everyone looked like me or my uncle, my aunt, or someone from my family. It was an uncanny experience to be part of the majority, to not feel singled out for my Asian looks. I felt strangely safe and felt a sense of belonging. Yet, speaking my broken Korean and the way I carried myself, it was clear I was a foreign-born Korean, so my sense of belonging was often short-lived. Still, it was a feeling I cherished, never knowing it while growing up in New York suburbs.

Back home, Los Angeles erupted after four police officers were acquitted for Rodney King’s near-murder. Korean-American businesses were targeted and destroyed. The anger over racial injustice and police brutality exploded. 

I was starting my first year of medical school that fall.  Like most first-year students, I was optimistic, and knew I could change the world. My interests were always in women’s health, but seeing the images of L.A. burning seared into my consciousness that race relations needed attention. I felt those before me didn’t do enough to combat racism. As a hopeful student, I knew my generation was going to do better.

George Floyd’s murder hit me hard. It signified how little progress we’ve made. I am now the "older" generation that should have done better. I feel somehow accountable for our current failures. For a long time, racism and medicine were in different silos. Working in a hospital, I felt it was an apolitical, racially-neutral place. How ignorant I was. 

Multiple studies have shown how hate has harmful health effects. For example, Dr. Ronald C. Kessler and colleagues in 1999 found that individuals who personally perceived any kind of major lifetime discrimination were likelier to have major depression. This is seen in our LGBTQ communities, which have higher rates of suicide than other groups. Also studied after 9/11 attacks, the Arab-Americans living in the U.S. who perceived abuse after 9/11 were likelier to report higher levels of psychological distress as well as lower levels of happiness. One systematic review finding showed isolation segregation was associated with poor pregnancy outcomes and mortality. A notorious glaring example of racism affecting health outcomes is the higher maternal mortality rates of Black mothers in the U.S. And again, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates race correlates and may even determine health outcomes.

I write this to help release my sadness, anger, and burden. It has been almost 30 years when Rodney King pleaded "Can’t we all just get along?" 

Pearl Lim, MD