Dr. Tiffany Richards

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After a long shift at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto, you might expect to find Dr. Tiffany Richards relaxing after a gruelling day. Instead, many evenings after work, Dr. Richards spends hours on social media speaking with African Nova Scotians in an effort to provide better health information to her community.

Graduating Dalhousie’s medical school in 2020 during the pandemic, Richards saw the virus affecting Black people more severely than people of other races. While Canada has been slow to gather race disaggregated data, studies in other countries consistently show that Black people experience higher mortality rates and worst post-infection outcomes. These poorer outcomes are exacerbated by long legacies of racism in health care which leave many Black patients anxious, mistrustful, and scared of medical interventions.

Richards says she understands exactly why Black people are suspicious of the medical system. And that’s why she doesn’t mind taking extra time to answer questions and allay concerns. While she is careful not to provide individual medical advice, she sees the need for Black doctors to fill the communication gap. COVID, she says, “hammered home to me just how much the medical profession needs to earn back the trust of Black people.”

Early on in the pandemic, Richards recalls seeing family members sharing links that suggested drinking boiling water to kill the virus in the lungs. The posts prompted her to make an Instagram video where she debunked some of the misinformation circling online about the virus. Since then, she has regularly taken to threads on Facebook to attempt to allay many of the fears in the Black community about the vaccine.

Her self-assigned task isn’t easy. In many threads, she faces skepticism and even outright hostility. In the face of these posts, she stays calm and compassionate, tirelessly posting expert sources of information, answering questions, and attempting to challenge myths about vaccination.

Her approach has paid off. Richards says that after these threads, she is often privately approached by people who tell her that because of her, they are going to get the vaccine.

For every hour or two I spend online, I get maybe two or three people who message me saying, “Thank you. I was really nervous, but now I’m going to get it.”

And that, she says, makes it all worthwhile. This is what she was born to do.

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Born and raised in Truro, Tiffany Richards always knew she wanted to be a doctor. But growing up, she never saw any Black Nova Scotians practicing medicine. The process of becoming a doctor, she says, felt “intimidating” to her.

Completing her undergraduate degree in Psychology at York University, Richards tried out different careers, but nothing quite stuck.

Then I ended up working for a kidney specialist in Toronto, and that was when I felt, I want this job! I tried to figure any other path out for my life that might be easier, but that’s when I realized: no, this is really the job I want.

Richards “finally” met her first Black Canadian doctor when she was 25. The experience left her “fangirling” and inspired her to go after her childhood dream. She also credits a group of Black women in medical school — Cinera States, Leah Jones, and Akila Whiley — for helping her see what was possible:

That was when I thought: these people are from here, they got in, they’re not rich — for years I thought it was completely inaccessible to me. So meeting them, I saw that they were in there and thriving and I thought, “this is so doable.”

Richards saved up for a year after working, and returned to university to do a second undergraduate degree in Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University in preparation for medical school at Dalhousie. When she got accepted, she understood that she wasn’t only there for herself, but for her entire community.

What inspired me to go into medicine is first of all, that I want our community to be well. I also recognized very young the flaws in the medical system. I recognized that communication within Black communities about medicine and about our needs is not there. I don’t think the medical profession listens well to our community, and I don’t think they communicate well with our community. I noticed even talking to elders in my community about their doctor’s appointments, the system just wasn’t addressing their needs.

I also saw early on that our community suffers from a lot of non-communicable diseases like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes — and while medicine isn’t the only thing that can fix it and the social determinants of health are a huge component — by having people from our community that can be primary care physicians, we can have people live healthier and longer.

After graduating medical school, Richards moved to Toronto “in the middle of the pandemic” to do her residency at University of Toronto. Out of 110 residents in Family Medicine, only three are Black.

Richards chose Toronto to intentionally work with patients of diverse backgrounds, races, and languages. Still, as a Black woman, she says she has experienced racism on the job:

The subtle thing is, people assume you’re anything but the doctor. So I’ve been mistaken for the minister, the social worker, the nurse. There’s nothing wrong with those professions, but when I’m wearing the same outfit as the other doctors who are mostly white men and white women, with a stethoscope around my neck, and then I’m assumed to be something else, you can guess what that is. Or, I’ve had people be very, very surprised that I’m the doctor. 

But Richards also highlights why women who look like her being visible matters:

Recently, I had a Black woman patient. I walked up to her and said, “I’m Dr. Richards,” and she got so excited. I’m still in training, so people watch our encounters, and my supervisor thought it was a family member. She could not get over this woman’s reaction to having her first Black doctor. So I had to explain to her, this is just how meaningful it is for us to see ourselves represented in spaces like this.

It is this sense of the responsibilities of her position that drive Richards. Talking to her, it is clear that providing care is more than a career for her, but structures how she lives her life every day focusing on the wellbeing of her community:

A lot of my friends who are in medicine, they don’t bother engaging with people on Facebook because they say, I’m not going to argue. It’s not going to change minds.

But I have changed minds. So I’m willing to take a few hours of my evening, and answer questions and engage in these conversations and dispel myths. I try my best to break down the science in a way that’s accessible for people who didn’t go to med school. I really just try to help people to understand. 

I also posted a photo of myself after I got vaccinated, because I did it to my body. I believe in it that much. I encouraged my parents who I love very much. I encourage all my family members. They’re all vaccinated. So I just try to share that to normalize getting vaccinated.

Over the past year, Richards has seen a number of myths circulated online. She recounts some of the most challenging misinformation about the COVID-19 virus that she has encountered:

One thing you hear is that young people are invincible to COVID. I’m not an ICU doctor, but I see patients on the floor after they’ve come from the ICU and I see younger Black people who are really sick. We don’t know what their lives will be like ten years from now, but for the foreseeable future, their lungs don’t function they way they used to, some of their hearts don’t function the way they used to, and they’ve lost months of their lives in hospital. That’s one of the big myths. People post memes about how “99% of people” recover from COVID, and that’s not entirely true. Even for people who do recover, their lives have changed.

Another myth is that the vaccine was rushed, that it didn’t go through the proper testing or that it wasn’t tested. That’s completely untrue. It’s easily verifiable it’s gone through all the normal stages of vaccine development. The difference is that there’s global co-operation. There’s billions of dollars that has gone towards this development so that it can be faster.

Some other myths are the idea that there are all of these “chemicals” in the vaccine. That’s also easily verifiable. You can go on Health Canada’s website and see what’s in the vaccine. It’s essentially fat molecules, salt molecules. sugar, water, and the protein that gives you the immune response. There is this pervasive myth that vaccines contain mercury. There used to be a tiny molecule called Thimerosol used, but because of public concerns that is not included in most newer vaccines and hasn’t been in childhood vaccines since 2001.

Another big one is that the mRNA in the vaccine changes your human genetics. That is absolutely not true. mRNA, the molecule that’s introduced into your lymphatic system, causes your body to build the protein and then it essentially disintegrates shortly after it’s introduced to your body.  At no point does it modify your genes at all. It’s not something that sticks around.

Dr. Richards’ own journey to the medical profession has been unconventional. It took time for her to find the confidence to follow her dream. For a long time in her life, she couldn’t see herself doing what she does today. And perhaps because of it — because of the self-doubt, and the patients who think she’s anything but a doctor, because it was possible for her to complete an undergraduate degree and never meet a Black doctor until her mid-20s — she has committed her life to making sure African Nova Scotians have the best care possible, whether that’s at an appointment or simply in an interaction online.

At the end of the interview, I ask Richards if she has a message for African Nova Scotians. Without skipping a beat, she says:

I think all questions are valid. But ensure you’re getting information from reputable sources. Talk to physicians, use the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), use the Health Canada website. Reach out to me, and if I don’t have the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

We have the data for Black Americans, and there’s no doubt COVID is disproportionately killing us and leaving us with co-morbidities. It’s really important that we all get vaccinated. Yes, so we can see our loved ones, but also, if you’re not vaccinated there’s so much unnecessary suffering and death. 

Despite the late hour, despite talking to me while walking home from her shift, despite having given the same information over and over for months on end, Dr. Richards is warm, upbeat, understanding, generous, patient. When I ask her what keeps her going — what drives her to spend her evenings posting the same links, taking the same criticism, often being dismissed — she says, simply, that she does it out of love.

I could not see myself doing any other job. I was telling my friends after work, I’m so happy I didn’t choose to do something else. I love working with patients. I love helping people live well and feel well. I love talking to them and ensuring their voice is heard and that they feel they have a home in this health journey.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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