For nearly two years, Brigham and Women’s Hospital — like most across the country — has felt like a war zone of sorts, as waves of COVID patients have filled its ICUs and demanded heroic efforts from its workers.
Now, just as the Omicron rush is fading away, the hospital has become the target of two unrelated protests that have drawn national attention and reverberated through a staff already pushed close to the breaking point.
On Jan. 22, antivaccine protesters denounced what they thought was a decision by the hospital to deny an unvaccinated man a new heart. Members of the group swore and yelled at a nurse on her way to pick up food outside the hospital, said Trish Powers, a nurse at the Brigham.
As that demonstration ended, approximately two dozen neo-Nazis dressed in khakis, black hoods, and black face masks held up a banner that read “B&W Hospital Kills Whites” and distributed photos of two doctors involved in antiracism and equity work at the hospital.
Since then, the disruptions have continued. Three dozen Brigham nurses were targeted in recent weeks for the hospital’s work with both vaccines and antiracism policies, with some threats conflating the two. Some nurses have filed reports with Boston police, Powers added. About 100 antivaccine protesters returned on Sunday, holding heart-shaped balloons and waving American flags.
“It’s another added burden,” said Powers. “People are just fed up . . . . It’s hard to find the joy these days inside a hospital.”
The events attracted media attention and drew reactions from doctors and hospital workers across the country. “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” picked up the stories, and public forums were held to analyze the neo-Nazi protest.
At a Twitter Live discussion hosted last Friday about the neo-Nazi demonstration, Dr. Brittani James, assistant professor of clinical family and community medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System and founder of two antiracism groups, said hearing about the protest brought her to tears.
“You just think, ‘Well, as a Black woman in this space doing this work as well, how long until my face is on a poster? How long until I’m hunted?’ ” she said.
She wondered why more medical organizations hadn’t rushed to condemn it, saying that beyond the American Medical Association, few national organizations had responded.
Dr. Jessica Isom, an attending psychiatrist at Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester and owner of Vision for Equity LLC, who attended the Twitter meeting, said it is important to discuss these events.
“While these are self-identified white nationalists, their ideology is not exclusive to them. They are holding and expressing things for lots of other people who have similar fears and concerns, however misguided they are,” said Isom. “We have to publicly and loudly assert why this effort is worth it. If we’re not actively supporting those efforts, that rhetoric from politicians and white extremists can convince people to be against our efforts, too.”
How and why did these disturbing events come together at the Brigham? Though there was confusion even inside the hospital that initially conflated the two protests, they were organized by different groups with distinct agendas.
The antivaccine protest was prompted by independent candidate for governor Dianna Ploss, who opposes Mass General Brigham’s policy requiring COVID vaccination for solid organ transplants. In a Facebook live stream on Jan. 21, Ploss said she had received a call from the family of David “DJ” Ferguson, a 31-year-old who said he was being required to get the vaccine to be eligible for a heart transplant.
Ferguson’s family did not return requests for comment, and the Brigham would not confirm whether or not he was a patient in the hospital, citing patient privacy. On a fund-raising page, Ferguson’s girlfriend, Heather Dawson, wrote that Ferguson had been denied a transplant because of his vaccine status and had in the meantime received a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which is typically used to support the heart as it waits for a transplant.
CBS Boston spoke to Ferguson’s father, who said a shot was against his son’s principles. Dawson wrote that the family was concerned the COVID shot could cause swelling in Ferguson’s heart.
COVID vaccinations for transplants are the recommendation of both the American Society of Transplantation and the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation. Dr. Howard Eisen, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at Penn State University, said patients also must meet other criteria to qualify, such as having quit smoking and received the flu vaccine.
“The important thing people need to understand are that the doctors are trying to do the best for their patients,” Eisen said. “There is no political agenda.”
Patients can live for several years with an LVAD, Eisen said. That delay should give the patient time to be vaccinated. Though the vaccine can, in rare cases, cause minor inflammation in the heart, the overall risks of vaccination for heart failure patients are low, especially for those whose hearts also have mechanical assistance, Eisen said.
Unrelated to the antivaccine protest, the neo-Nazi group took aim at the hospital’s equity work, which was prompted by the murder of George Floyd and poor COVID outcomes for minority groups. Mass General Brigham’s United Against Racism campaign formally launched in October 2020.
Dr. Michelle Morse, one of the two doctors targeted by the protesters, teaches at Harvard Medical School, formerly worked at Brigham and Women’s, and is now chief medical officer for the New York City Health Department. Dr. Bram Wispelwey, the other doctor to appear on the group’s fliers, is an internal medicine and public health doctor at the Brigham. The pair had been studying inequities at the hospital for years, and together published an article in March 2021 in the Boston Review, laying out an antiracist agenda for medicine, a term used to describe being proactive and intentional in ending health inequities and institutional racism.
Pushback began circling on Twitter after the article was published and resurfaced in April when DePaul University professor Jason Hill called the work “political eugenics” on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
The neo-Nazi protesters featured the doctors’ photos and names prominently on fliers the group handed out, which inaccurately called the hospital’s antiracism and equity work “antiwhite policies.”
Morse and Wispelwey did not respond to requests for comment, but said in an interview on GBH that they have received threats in the months following the Twitter fallout and protest.
Tom Sequist, chief medical officer of Mass General Brigham, said it isn’t surprising medicine has become politicized given the rising tensions elsewhere in society.
“We’re seeing significant pushback from a variety of sectors — legal, government, protests about what can be taught in schools . . . this is just another reflection of that,” Sequist said.
Seeing antivaccine protesters and then neo-Nazi groups outside of the hospital when she was working on Jan. 22 was “horrifying,” said Powers, the Brigham nurse. She had already attracted the ire of antivaccine groups in September, after a right-wing media outlet posted photos of her and her mother eating at a restaurant and criticized Powers’s support of hospital vaccination requirements. The fact that the two protests came two days after the anniversary of the death of a Brigham doctor, who was shot inside the hospital in 2015, made nurses even more fearful.
“I went into nursing at 18 years old, and started nursing school,” Powers said. “But I don’t love it anymore. Now I dread going into work.”
Hospital leadership at Mass General Brigham has sought to reassure employees in the wake of the protests, noting that many staff were present when the physician was murdered.
“The fact that our faculty has experienced that kind of violence, it becomes much more real for all of us,” said Sunil Eappen, chief medical officer at the Brigham. “There’s a bit of PTSD that comes with that. . . . Which is why we’ve taken the extra care, heightened security around where staff come in. We want them to feel really secure. And they are.”
In a staff memo, Brigham executives also said they would not be deterred in their work.
“Sadly, these events have . . . emboldened a troubling number of people to publicly express views that are inhumane, repugnant, and contrary to our values,” said a memo sent Jan. 25 and cosigned by Eappen. “We have no tolerance for people who do not live our values and we are fiercely committed to ensuring the Brigham remains a place of hope, healing and shared humanity.”
The hospital held a virtual town hall meeting on Jan. 28 to assure its frazzled workforce of its safety and purpose.
Dr. Anne Klibanski, president and CEO of Mass General Brigham, reaffirmed the sentiments in an all-staff e-mail on Feb. 4. She said the actions of the neo-Nazi white supremacist group had “understandably been upsetting to us all.”
“Despite these latest events, this work will not be deterred, nor will our commitment to providing equitable, exceptional healthcare to all,” Klibanski wrote.
This story has been updated to reflect that minor heart inflammation is rare in vaccine recipients.