3 March 2022
Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando called on leadership for Hennepin Healthcare to fire three employees, including a doctor and deputy chief of EMS, and demote supervisors over two incidents she says reflect a “deeply rooted” culture of systemic racism inside the safety-net hospital system.
In a scathing statement Wednesday night, Fernando said the Hennepin Healthcare board has approved millions of dollars in outreach since she joined in 2020, and has issued a directive for the safety-net hospital to address institutional racism and health inequities.
“The incidents that have been reported recently, in combination with slow action from management, represent a harmful pattern that damages community trust,” said Fernando. “These incidents are not isolated — they each fit into a long series of racist incidents and practices by Hennepin Healthcare employees and leadership. It is clear that racism is deeply rooted within the organization and must be addressed directly through systemic changes in both the policy and leadership of Hennepin Healthcare.”
The commissioner’s comments come in response to two recent Star Tribune reports. On Wednesday, the news organization published a story about internal turmoil within the hospital system exacerbated over recently surfaced photos containing employees wearing blackface makeup. One featured two white paramedics, including EMS Deputy Chief Amber Brown, dressed as 1960s vocal trio the Supremes. Another shows two people dressed as R&B duo Milli Vanilli, in dreadlock-style wigs and dark makeup.
A member of the public sent Facebook screenshots of the images to Hennepin Healthcare leadership on Feb. 15, which included another EMS Deputy Chief, Mike LeVake, “liking” one of the photos. The pictures have since circulated among hospital employees. Last weekend, a group of doctors from throughout the hospital system issued a letter demanding quick disciplinary action.
In a statement, Hennepin Healthcare leadership said it is investigating the photos.
Fernando called it “appalling that no one has faced consequences to date.”
“One of these photos may have been taken at an event hosted or sanctioned by Hennepin EMS,” said Fernando. “Regardless of when the photos were taken, the conduct of these employees is abhorrent. Dressing in blackface and treating race, ethnicity, or culture as a costume is degrading, extremely racist, and cannot be tolerated. The employees in the photos should be fired, and supervisors who were aware of this misconduct should be disciplined and removed from leadership positions.”
Last month, the Star Tribune reported on a doctor for Hennepin Healthcare who appeared in a training video for Minneapolis police. The video, obtained by the Star Tribune through a public records request, shows Dr. Paul Nystrom teaching officers how to respond to a a severe form of agitation called “excited delirium” — despite Mayor Jacob Frey publicly announcing the city had stopped training on this controversial syndrome in 2021, after the American Medical Association publicly rejected the diagnosis.
“This is unacceptable and a direct violation of an organizational directive,” said Fernando. “Excited Delirium is a controversial diagnosis that is not recognized by the American Medical Association. It is clear that this diagnosis is rooted in systemic racism and and has been used to justify the assault and murder of victims of police violence, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The doctor who conducted these training should be fired for his actions, and supervisors who were aware of his misconduct should be disciplined and removed from leadership positions.”
Located on the east side of downtown, Hennepin Healthcare and its flagship hospital, HCMC, serves some of the most diverse and vulnerable patients in Minnesota. In 2018, 34% of patients were Black, 19% were Hispanic/Latino and 38% were white, according to the hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment 2020-2022 study.
Rachel Hardeman, Director of the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity at the University of Minnesota was disappointed to see more examples of institutionalized racism at the city’s safety net hospital that cares for people of color and immigrant communities.
“To suggest that this incident does not impact patient care, or the broader mission of Hennepin Healthcare, is completely naïve and actually incredibly harmful,” Hardeman said.
While it can be easy to characterize these incidents as being enacted by bad actors who make a singular choice, it is important to consider what this means for the hospital system and other institutions that have not truly faced their history of racism, she said.
Hardeman, who is Black, had been a patient of Hennepin Healthcare in the past, but decided to no longer be a patient there because of the way that she was treated.
“As someone with knowledge and resources, if I was treated that way, I can’t imagine how folks with less privilege than me have felt and that breaks my heart. No one should feel like that,” Hardeman said.
Going forward, she hopes that the hospital gives resources to and uplifts people like Chief Health Equity Officer Dr. Nneka Sederstrom . Repairing relationships and not only relying on anti-racism training will also be key for an organization that is also an economic driver in the community that employs people from communities of color.
“I think that a truth and reconciliation process that is open and authentic and honest, and probably facilitated by someone externally could go a long way towards starting down that path of change,” Hardeman said.