NBC’s medical drama New Amsterdam had an unusual diagnosis this Tuesday in the episode, “Sabbath.”
After Dr. Helen Sharpe finds her 13-year-old patient Cephas has four benign tumors growing in his stomach and that the boy has elevated levels of stress hormones, psychiatrist Dr. Iggy Frome determines the tumors were caused by racism. As the surgeon operates and removes the four tumors from Cephas, he warns the tumors could come back and might not be benign next time.
Iggy realizes Cephas feels isolated and threatened all the time after asking him a series of questions that measures a person’s level of “social resistance.” He tells the boy’s mom Cephas feels “ Like everything he's earned can just be taken away. He's disenfranchised.”
He tries to code the insurance billing paperwork with the diagnosis of racism, which gets a stern rebuke from Sandra Fall from billing. She tells him he coded the form like a “Bernie Bro” writing in their vote, but tells him to change the world after he changes the official billing codes.
Iggy refuses to change his diagnosis because “it will actually hurt patients” like Cephas.
“He's proof that racism can cause life-threatening medical issues, and no one is doing anything about it because no one is tracking the data to prove it. And do you know why no one is tracking the data to prove it? - Because the ICD-10 doesn't have a diagnostic code for it.” Iggy insists.
Cephas’ mom struggles with the diagnosis and tells Sharpe she’s tried to shield her son from racism and even got him into a “progressive” school and group sports with diverse coaches.
Sharpe sympathizes saying, “Even here in this progressive hospital I have to deal with microaggressions every day from people who mean well, from people who should know better. That’s the world we live in.”
Late in the episode, Iggy talks to Cephas again and gets him to admit he thinks the school librarian won’t let him check out books because of the color of his skin.
Iggy: Racism is so deeply ingrained in our society, that people, myself included, we often don’t realize that we’re perpetuating it.
Cephas: So like, when people give me nicknames I don’t want because my name is different?
Iggy: Yes, that is a microaggression because of the color of your skin.
Cephas: What about when adults tell me I speak really good English?
Iggy: Because of the color of your skin.
After asking many questions, Cephas tells Iggy, “I just thought I didn’t deserve to be there, I wasn’t good enough. I was a mistake.”
“No, Cephas. Listen to me, all of this. Everything you’re talking about has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the world around you," says Iggy.
While racism is evil and causes tremendous harm, scientific evidence does not currently support New Amsterdam’s idea that it causes tumors. Chronic stress can lead to many health problems including anxiety, depression, as well as digestive, immune system and heart problems.
But according to the National Cancer Institute, “the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak.” So far, only experimental studies have suggested psychological stress can affect tumor growth, and NCI added that there was “still no strong evidence that stress directly affects cancer outcomes.”