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UCSF panel highlights nationwide health disparities, social injustices

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A group of UC San Francisco professors, medical students and activists, discussed Wednesday the issues involving race, poverty and access in health care at a panel at the university’s Parnassus campus. (Nashelly Chavez/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In her early years on the air, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien covered national stories, like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 BP oil spill, and worked as the lead anchor of CNN’s series “Black in America.” But the assignment that made her question how the media covers controversial issues was less flashy.

The story­ — a child who shot his sister after receiving a BB gun on Christmas morning — opened O’Brien’s eyes to how journalists in some cases fail to report on stories with necessary context.

“We never really dug into any of the issues, that I know now really surround this story,” O’Brien said. “We would never allow the person to get in the way of a headline.”

O’Brien, along with a group of UC San Francisco professors, medical students and activists, discussed Wednesday the issues involving race, poverty and access in health care at a panel at the university’s Parnassus campus. O’Brien linked the two separate fields — journalism and health care — saying both rely on uncovering the deeper stories within minority communities.

O’Brien, the panel’s keynote speaker, spoke as part of the first UCSF campuswide teach-in since the Iraq War. The “Injustice and Health” event sought to spark a conversation among students and faculty about health disparities and social injustice.

Students, some sporting blue scrubs, nearly filled Cole Hall Auditorium, along with UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dan Lowenstein.

“The idea of a teach-in is that it brings us together in a key moment in UCSF history,” Lowenstein said, adding that achieving diversity and social equality is at the core of the school’s identity.

O’Brien chronicled her life as a multiracial broadcast journalist and producer, interweaving stories about her parents, who married in the late ’50s when interracial marriage was still illegal in the U.S., O’Brien said.

“My parents were my first example of forging on,” O’Brien said during her keynote speech.

O’Brien also said her work on the 2008 “Black in America” series, which she hosted and later developed into additional documentaries including “Latino in America” and “Gay in America,” helped her highlight how stress, poverty and decreased access to medical treatment impacted the health of black families.

Suzanne Barakat, a panelist Wednesday who works as a resident at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, said that as a Muslim, she is familiar with Islamophobia. The murder of her brother, Deah Shaddy Barakat, a dental student at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, sparked a national debate on how the country views Muslim Americans and has driven Barakat to speak out against discrimination in her community.

Barakat pointed to an incident in which a patient made discriminatory statements against her following the San Bernardino attack in December. At the time, her peers didn’t defend her, Barakat said.

“The reason I am here is to make us advocates for each other,” Barakat said.

Rena Pasick, another panelist and professor of medicine and assistant director at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Community Education and Outreach team, said her years in the healthcare field have helped her see how minorities, especially black people, face a disproportionately high rate of cancer.

“It took me a long time to see that these disparities are the long shadow of slavery,” Pasick said, adding that advances in technology and healthcare need to help those who cannot afford treatment.

Angel Rosario, a first-year medical student at UCSF, said the panelists helped him celebrate his upbringing and made him question how else the university can aid low-income students. Rosario said he grew up in Harlem and was the only person in his neighborhood to attend college.

“It just shows a lot about the school’s commitment to diversity and extending our help to the most underserved communities,” Rosario said.