Driving while 18 in 1974

I noticed the highway patrol following close behind, mirroring my every traffic move. The fear mounted in my body and I intentionally slowed my breathing. After five minutes of rising terror, he turned the corner and I began to relax. I assume the internet search of my license plate number did not signal any red flags. I began to think of all the times I’d been stopped “while driving Black” over the last couple of decades and then a countering memory from many years earlier came to mind.

Denver to Palo Alto

The first time a police officer stopped me, it was 1976, and I was speeding along Interstate 80 heading west towards California from Denver, CO, as a sophomore at Stanford University. I headed towards Phoenix to pick up my friend. Racing alone, when the lights and sirens showed up in my rear-view mirror, I remember feeling scared, not about my safety, more because of my embarrassment from being caught. At some point, I’d have to share the news with my parents.
On this long stretch of empty highway, my being safe only mattered to my parents, who had argued with me for days about driving to California alone. The compromise was that they would follow me along in their car as far as Colorado Springs, which turned into Salt Lake City, which ended at the Grand Canyon on the periphery of Arizona. Multiple arguments between my parents and me took place along the way. My father took me aside and told me I had inflicted hurt on my mother of indescribable proportions. But I held steadfast. I mean, I was an adult now, right. I demonstrated my adulthood by going to a college out of state and being a safe driver. I’d never gotten a traffic ticket. I’d been driving for years now. The arguments about flat tires and desolate stretches of the road with no way of getting in touch with anyone, waiting for luck to bring help, didn’t rattle me. I had Triple-A roadside service and a car with new tires.

Most importantly, I was responsible! It had been a conversation about personal maturity, not safety per se. Stories likened to the death of Sandra Bland heading to her newly acquired employment would never have been shared. Obviously, they existed but I had been shielded. I was clueless.

The older white officer approached the car. Nervous, my voice shaky, I had no strategy. I thought, what is my excuse for driving over the speed limit? I knew I would be late to pick up my friend in Arizona because of all the stops for meals and long debates with my parents. I stopped paying attention to my speed on my long drive through the flat desert countryside. He approached me, said hello, and smiled. He asked me my name, how old I was, and where I was going. He proceeded to chat with me about the dangers of driving fast. He described how many of the deadly car accidents on this stretch of the road were caused by young people speeding. He encouraged me to slow down and to be safe. He said it was a warning, and if I drove over the speed limit again, he would be obligated to give me a ticket. I smiled knowing I could keep this secret from my parents.

Two states later, with my friend in the passenger seat, I encountered another police officer. Speeding along the beautiful California coast heading north from Los Angeles, chatting about friends, courses, and sports; I had forgotten the warning in Arizona. Again, I wondered what I would say to the police officer as he approached my car. He too let me off with a warning to slow down, and a promise of a ticket if caught speeding again. I look back at my attitude and behavior so long ago and think, “clueless while driving at 18 in 1974.”


6 months

Something magical happens when you welcome a dog into your life. Suddenly, dogs become prolific in your neighborhood. Neighbors appear like strangers in the night. There are a lot more neighbors, too. New dogs appear from behind fences and in the middle of parted curtains. Quiet people with historically averted eyes and silence, boldly ask you the most intimate questions.

What is your dog’s name? Is he a mastiff? A Dalmation? no, ahhh, a Great Dane right? I answer, yes, she is a Great Dane puppy not quite half her expected size. She’s big. Yes, she’s big.

The other thing that starts to happen is you begin to bump into these strangers everywhere you go. You see them at the city park, the dog park, the kiddie park, the secret park, and the park. You realize that you used to have a life that took you to the grocery store, the department store, the mall, the library, the new hip restaurant and now, you can be found at the park. You can be found walking to the park, running in the park, and walking home from the park, and throwing a ball using a plastic arm extension in the park. You are blessed if your city or town offers parks. You can find yourself planning trips and getting yelp recommendations for regional parks.

I love my new lifestyle with Jade…romping around in the parks.

10 month old Jade at William Land Park Sacramento

Accused of Attempted Murder

Part One

We planned a ski trip to a fashionable resort, joining a group of friends from my sister’s sports club. I promised Marianne a private ski lesson, as she had only been to the slopes a few times before. It was the early 90’s, and I hadn’t seen Marianne in over two years. Our residency programs kept us busy and free time was spent with family. Marianne had made my medical school years bearable, even fun. Brilliant, confident, and beautiful, I aspired to be just like her. I talked about the trip, she said she would join us. Weeks later, she called and said, ” I have something I want to talk to you about on the trip.” Why not now, I said. “It has to be in person.” sounding severe. On each phone call leading up to the trip, I would ask what she wanted to talk about, and each time she would say, ” It has to be in-person.” Even after greeting all of my sister’s friends in the Colorado chalet, getting comfortable in our appointed rooms, she avoided the conversation. “Let’s talk on the slopes,” she said. The night before skiing, I couldn’t sleep. Repetitive thoughts kept me awake. Was it her new boyfriend, Andre? Her parents disapproved. They never approved of anyone. Had she been diagnosed with a terminal illness? She appeared healthy? What was I missing?

As the ski lift took us higher and higher into the air, as the blue sky and the sun peeked through the clouds, my anxiousness mounted. What was it? In medical school, we confided with each other about everything. She was my person.

I pushed, “Marianne, please, tell me what is going on? Are you sick?”

“No,” she said. ” I’m healthy. It’s Andre”.

I knew it. “Your parents disapprove because he is white? Right?”

“No, my parents have never met him, ” She continued, “I wanted to let you know that Andre is actually Adrienne!”

Her words hung in the cold, dry air. I just stared at her. She said slowly, making eye contact with me, as I was obviously stunned. “Her name is Adrienne, and … I’m gay.”
As her words hung in the air, I actually felt my body shrink into itself while my thoughts raced to question myself silently over and over. What did she say? What do I say next? What am I supposed to say? What do I do?
She began to recall how she and Adrienne had met. How she had kept this secret from me for so long and why. How her parents would never approve. That she had kept the secret to keep her career in medicine.

She interrupted my thoughts, ” Stacie… Stace, are you listening to me?” Suddenly, jolted out of my thoughts, I yelled, ” Oh Thank God,… I thought you had cancer!”

Accused of Attempted Murder

Part Two

Please read Part One first!

We disembarked from the ski chair, and I led to the left. The gentle slope led me to a run I had skied multiple times in the past; simple and easy. I chose a beginner slope, or so I thought. I remembered an easy grade with minimum pitch and gorgeous terrain. In retrospect, I never saw a trail marker, probably because I didn’t look for one. Taking the lead and moving down the mountain, feeling the cold breeze against my face would offer me the chance to get my head together; I slowly moved forward. I thought I had chosen a simple run, as Marianne had only been skiing a couple of times before. Marianne followed close behind. As I skied over the first ridge, I immediately recognized the steep pitch of an advanced slope. I wondered, where am I. Skiing over the first ridge; I realized I had led both of us onto a double diamond run, difficult for me and impossible for Marianne.
As I coached her down the mountain, falling occasionally and watching her take spill after spill, I realized I had put us both in danger. She could be hurt. We focused on the job at hand. I had forgotten that minutes earlier, my friend had told me the most important fact about her life- who she chose to love.
One hour later, when the danger seemed to dissipate, with skis in hand, walking down in knee-deep snow and crawling over moguls the size of little hills, Marianne laughed at the top of her lungs, smiling at me, ” I’ve come out to a few people, but Stacie, no one else has tried to kill me!”
We tell this friendship story, entitled “When Stacie Tried To Kill Me” at gatherings and between ourselves. My love for her has never wavered, and I have no idea what happened on that ski slope some 30 years ago when I steered her onto a double diamond ski run. Could it have been unconscious biases guiding my actions? Could it have been my need to appear accepting, using up so much brain space, that I had blinders on for the reality surrounding me? I wonder…

Oxytocin and Hugs

Today on a webinar about Unconscious Bias, I was reminded of the power of oxytocin for stimulating good, warm fuzzy feelings.[1]  Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain. When a breastfeeding mother embraces her infant or when the infant cues its mother into wanting to feed,  this powerful hormone is released.  Oxytocin stimulates the letdown of milk, while simultaneously opening up the heart of both the mother and infant for feelings of connection and closeness. Oxytocin is released when we give each other hugs, in the first months of a love relationship, and when we have orgasms.   I wonder if oxytocin can be released when I examine some of my patients.  

My next thought was we need to bring the hug back to public education.  Imagine, the child feels welcomed and uplifted as he or she walks into the classroom.  And, more importantly, the teacher is filled with a rush of incredible warmth as they scan the room of their daily crew, oxytocin stimulated by 28 different hugs!

I shared this thought with a professor I know, and she said, ” Ah, well, good luck with that!”  I know the public is probably not ready to give up the association between hugging and inappropriate touch at school.  But , wouldn’t it be inspirational?  A hug a day would keep the potential for learning paramount.   Many teachers have found other ways to connect with their students that involve touch but not hugging.  I imagine connection is happening and oxytocin flowing through daily traditions like – the special handshake, the life-affirming daily hip hop  chants,  or the affirmations to each student before beginning a lesson.  Now let’s take this one step further.  What would a medical school classroom look like if oxytocin levels were high or off the charts?  What adult behaviors of connection simulate the handshake, the chant, or the affirmation?  Maybe, we should just start with the hug!

My thoughts turned to something I have personally pondered a lot.  When colleagues or patients would ask, “Dr. Walton, you always seem so upbeat, what’s your secret?”   I would think, ” Well, after you see the first patient of the day, it is just uphill from there!”  Between getting my children to school and dealing with the commute or starting the day with a contentious morning staff meeting,  even after arriving to work frustrated or flustered,   by the time I was finished seeing the first patient of the morning, I was leaving that room uplifted and smiling.  In that exam room, hugs of greeting were the norm, hugs of compassion when life sucked were accepted.  A touch on a mother’s shoulder to say I hear you and I understand. Most encounters included an exam.  Wouldn’t oxytocin levels be running high in that room?

What do hugs and oxytocin have to do with discussions about unconscious bias?  Well, when you feel connected, your oxytocin levels increase, you are happy and stimulate higher brain function.  With higher brain function, you are more self-aware and feel expanded.  Open to new ideas, creativity is at your fingertips.   You are less likely to be dependent on unconscious beliefs and emotions like fear to guide your thinking or your behavior. You are more likely to be open to learning in a classroom or more creative when determining the diagnoses and treatment plan for your patient.

[1] “Oxytocin: The Love Hormone?”

Stacie L. Walton MD, MPH, recently retired from Kaiser Permanente as a clinical Pediatrician serving in the roles of both Diversity Champion and Communication Consultant. She served as a medical consultant in diversity issues for healthcare providers and institutions for over 25 years.

Currently, her cultural competency themes highlight the impact of implicit bias and privilege in patient interactions and health outcomes, as well as, how effective patient-provider communication requires both competences and humility.