Psychiatry assistant professor Dr. Damon Tweedy signs copies of his book "Black Man - White Coat" prior to giving a recent talk at the Medical Center Library. Photo: Les Todd/Duke Photography
About a week before his book came out last month, Duke psychiatrist Dr. Damon Tweedy told his publicist that he couldn't go through with the publicity plans. Media interest in his memoir, “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine,” had grown over the summer and what Tweedy had envisioned as a few local appearances had mushroomed into a whirlwind national tour.
“I told the publisher that I was going to embarrass myself on national TV and that people wouldn't buy the book as a result,” Tweedy said.
It turns out Tweedy had little to worry about.
Tweedy’s memoir of his experiences as a medical student and practitioner started gaining attention this past spring as early reviews praised its insights on hot button issues of race and medicine. The book was selected for a book buzz panel at a New York City trade show, and from there “everything sort of took off with the media in terms of national exposure,” Tweedy recalls.
Tweedy, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a staff physician at the Durham VA Medical Center, explores his experience as one of the nation's few black doctors and he looks at the disproportionate health burdens black patients face and remedies for better treatment and care.
“I never imagined getting this much coverage,” Tweedy said. “My publicist at Picador (the publisher) is very enthusiastic and has a lot of contacts, so it has sort of taken on a life of its own.”
In the end, Tweedy agreed to the expanded tour schedule, which took him to New York for “CBS This Morning,” and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Cambridge and Boston for a “Google Talk” and radio appearances and Washington for multiple media appearances, including one on the “PBS NewsHour” and a reading at the Barnes & Noble at Howard University that was later aired on C-SPAN’s “Book TV.”
Tweedy says there wasn’t much in his background to make media work easier. “I mean I've played basketball in front of a lot of people, but I wasn't particularly great at that, so it didn't necessarily give me a lot of confidence going into this.
“It's sort of weird as a psychiatrist to do this, because in my daily practice, I am the one hearing everyone else's story while revealing very little about myself. And I've never been someone who particularly likes being the center of attention. So it was really jumping into the fire. Or as someone from the mental health field might say, exposure therapy.”
Tweedy says there was a part of him that “wanted to write the book that I would like to have read along the way, one that spoke to the issues of health problems in the black community and the experience of black physicians written in narrative style.”
In an op-ed for The New York Times, “The Case for Black Doctors,” Tweedy previewed the book and said we must attack racial health disparities from as many angles as possible.
Tweedy says the month-long book tour was tough. The long days of travel kept him away from work and home, but things have settled down some the last few weeks. “I'm still doing a lot of after-hours work talking at bookstores and doing social media,” he says.
Some of his favorite appearances were in front of microphones, not cameras. He has been a guest on more than 15 radio talk shows. “I enjoy doing radio more than television,” he says. “It's more relaxed, you don't have to worry about how you look, and you have more time to make your points.”
What does he take away from the experience? “Many of the things I've written about in the book touch people from all walks of life,” he says. “The national coverage has enabled me to reach people that I otherwise would not have. On a personal note, I've learned that being on radio and TV is like anything else -- the more practice you have, the better you get at it.”
Tweedy says it has also been great to reconnect with former classmates and teachers and professors from high school, college, medical school, and residency training. “Media has an amazing way of shrinking the world,” he says.
He had only limited interactions with the media before this tour. “A few local TV interviews in college -- about 20 years ago -- that was it,” he says. “I’ve learned I don't really like wearing makeup on TV. And sitting in coach seating is tough when your legs are as long as mine (he stands at 6’6”).”