When Dr. Venkata Gupta hears the phrase “I can't breathe,” he usually leaps to action.

He's a resident at MU Health Care. He said it's not just him — that phrase prompts a response from everyone in the medical field.

Which is why he, along with several other MU Health Care employees, organized a demonstration Thursday evening in honor of George Floyd near Stankowski Field.

“We understand the urgency when we hear those words 'I can't breathe,'” he wrote in an email announcing the event. “Our nation at present is screaming out those words 'I can't breathe' and we must stand up for action.”

About 150 health care workers attended the demonstration. They stood, sat and knelt on the sidewalks for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the same amount of time a Minneapolis police officer restrained George Floyd before Floyd died.

“This is a public health crisis,” Gupta said before beginning the period of silence. “Kneeling on someone's throat while he cried out 'I can't breathe' is a public health crisis.”

As Gupta started the timer, most in attendance knelt. Some held signs that said “black lives matter,” “racism is a public health crisis” and “I can't breathe.” Others simply knelt silently, hands folded or outstretched.

The event, which Gupta said had no political affiliation, wasn't sponsored by MU Health Care. It was a grassroots effort based on the work of White Coats For Black Lives, a national organization which was started in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown. There is no local chapter, but two MU Health Care residents, Kristin V and Bayo Bello, said they were in the beginning phases of launching one.

White Coats For Black Lives advocates for greater dialogues among physicians about police brutality, greater access to medical care for African Americans and other people of color, and more awareness among medical students on how racism manifests in health care, according to its website.

Mounting evidence shows that people of color are less likely to receive preventative care than their white counterparts and often receive substandard care. In one University of Virginia study, untrue beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites led to racial disparities in pain assessment and treatment.

“We inherently have this implicit bias that is kind of baked into us,” Gupta said. “We recognize that this is an issue we know we have to work towards getting rid of this issue and make sure we're preparing the next line of physicians going out to be advocates (against) racial disparities, especially with COVID-19 happening.”

Dr. Kristin Sohl, who helped spread the word about the event, said she sees the pandemic and the recent protests as related. This is not the first time a black man died in police custody after yelling “I can't breathe” she noted. Eric Garner did when he was detained by a New York City Police officer in 2014.

But Sohl said this time was different.

“We're at home, so we can see these things,” she said. “I think we were more able to hear it, unfortunately because ... it was there.”

COVID-19 has revealed the racism within America's health care system more clearly, Sohl said. In St. Louis, black residents have been reported to be dying of the virus at disproportionate rates. The trend has even been seen in rural areas, such as Pemiscot county in the Bootheel, where more than 50% of known COVID-19 cases are among African Americans. According to census data, 26% of residents of the county are black.

“It has disproportionately affected people of color, particularly blacks,” Sohl said. “And the best explanation we can point to is that it is not anything pathophysiologically about being black. It seems to be mainly social determinants.”

Sohl, who is white, said the process of addressing her own implicit bias as well as the systematic racism within health care will be an ongoing process.

“I think this is an opportunity to keep learning and listening,” she said.

MU Health Care and Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital workers will gather once again outside the two facilities at 1 p.m. Friday to observe another 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd.