On a late winter night in 2001 in an urban neighborhood near Chicago, Rima Shah, MD, brought her car to a stop at a red light. The snow fell as midnight closed in.
The doctor had just come off a grueling shift at the hospital. As she waited for the traffic light to turn green, she looked at the car next to her and saw a young black man inside, his head bopping to some music she couldn’t hear.
She reached for her door locks. When she and the black guy locked eyes, she hit the locks.
His window rolled down and he began yelling something at her.
She couldn’t hear his words. Fearfully and carefully, she lowered her window.
“Lady,” the guy shouted. “Turn your front headlights on!”
In that instant, Rima realized she had done something she thought she would never do: She had a stereotypical reaction to a fellow human being based on that person’s appearance.
“That was a self-inflicted punch in my gut,” recalls Dr. Shah, a pre-9/11 Muslim immigrant who has seen her share of discrimination. “I felt horrible. I had reacted unconsciously.”
Throughout her career, Dr. Shah, 41, has had to navigate a path past—and sometimes through—bias and discrimination
Today, she is a doctor of internal medicine at Spectrum Health’s Academic Medical Associates. She is also among the core faculty at Grand Rapids Medical Education Partners, affiliated with Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. She teaches residents and also sees patients at Spectrum Health.
“I’ve had patients who have refused to see me, based on my name and appearance as other, foreign, alien,” Dr. Shah said. “And I say, ‘Just give me a chance.’ It doesn’t bother me at all.”
It doesn’t bother her, she says, because often what we are quick to easily label as “racism” is merely a trepidation of the unknown, the unfamiliar. She is willing to give this benefit of doubt for the possible larger gain of a chance to foster and facilitate dialogue and understanding.
Raised in Pakistan, Dr. Shah earned her medical degree in 1999 at the Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, Pakistan.
“It’s a developing country,” she explained. “Women’s rights are still a work in progress.”
Soon after graduating from medical school in Peshawar, she came to the United States for a residency at Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, about 14 miles west of Chicago.
Then 9/11 happened.
“It was pretty bad,” Dr. Shah says. “There was a lot of implicit bias and a lot of direct bias, including my teachers making snide, unnecessary comments.”
Dr. Shah is married to Viqar Khan, 49, an engineer who also emigrated from Pakistan. Their children are Zain, 7, and Summer, 10.
They had an arranged marriage. Earlier arrangements—both Rima and Viqar were briefly engaged to others—did not work out. The couple’s families knew each other, they met, “and it worked out fantastically,” Dr. Shah said.
In her faculty duties, Dr. Shah works with many underprivileged patients. This includes helping at-risk adults prevent and manage chronic diseases, as well as focusing on efforts to improve children’s health and provide dietary care and nutrition education. In some cases, she has even pushed for what can only be described as a “prescription for food.”
Through Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, patients in need learn about the types of food that make for a balanced diet. They’re then provided a weekly $20 voucher to spend at a downtown farmer’s market, where they find all manner of healthy foods.
“The best part of the job is the opportunity to serve underserved people,” Dr. Shah said. “We see them all day, every day.”
These are people often judged by their looks or their status. Maybe they’re older, poorer, or endowed with a different skin tone.
Dr. Shah has tried to live by the lessons she knows to be true, lessons like the one she was reminded of so many years ago, by a young black man head-bopping to his music.
Lady, turn your headlights on, he had said.
In other words: “Lady, see. And watch where you’re going.”