Dr. Ben Danielson’s Resignation Begs the Community to Question: What Is True Accountability?

by Adana Protonentis and Jasmine M. Pulido

True accountability is about nurturing relationships.

It is generative and proactive. Accountability is a practice of relying on those we are in relationship with to help us see when we have stepped outside of our integrity and help us find our way back. In short, accountability is about caring.

This is what Dr. Danielson modeled, when he spoke of examining his own complicity in a system that exploited Black and Brown families as fundraising tools, while refusing to make meaningful investments in their wellbeing. Dr. Danielson’s integrity demanded that he leave Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH), as an act of care for the families he served. He was willing to sacrifice his 20-plus-year tenure at one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the nation to stay aligned with this level of accountability.
If we view accountability in this relational way, we get insight into how Dr. Danielson’s approach to health care deeply held the communities he served. When the Emerald spoke with South Seattle families, we asked them, “What did Dr. Danielson’s care feel like?”

South Seattle families felt this care through Dr. Danielson’s actions, not just his words. For parents like Hodan Mohamed, a South End mother living in the New Holly area whose three children (one with a disability) were all seeing Dr. Danielson, his care felt like being seen, heard, and treated as a whole person. It felt like having her emotional needs met and legitimate social concerns addressed atop her medical inquiries. “He doesn’t judge you,” said Mohamed. “He makes you feel comfortable, respects your culture, respects you as a parent. He knew we had different cultures. He respected me.” As a Somalian refugee and young Muslim mother raising her children by herself, for Mohamed, Dr. Danielson was not only a doctor but a role model and father figure to her three daughters. “He engaged you and asked you questions. I felt like we were partners.”

Dr. Danielson’s compassion for his patients felt slow, deliberate, and unquestioningly attentive, not rushed or superficially addressed. “I remember him being such a presence,” Natasha West-Baker recalled, a Black mother of three biological children. West-Baker grew up in the Central District from age 11 and raised her kids there as well. Her daughter now takes her granddaughter to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC). West-Baker said Dr. Danielson’s presence was welcoming. “His presence made you feel like it was safe. Your kids were going to be well taken care of. Even just witnessing him overseeing everything and being that presence was amazing.”

How does it feel when families lose access to the steady, intentional, caring presence they rely on?

When South Seattle families found out about Dr. Danielson’s resignation, many of them cried. “Anybody can be a doctor, but you’re not gonna be like he is,” said Jonathan Cunningham, a Black South End father of two living in the Beacon Hill area. “He’s rare. When you get that, you nurture it.” There was a mix of grief and anger in Cunningham’s voice as he cried, reflecting on the positive impact Dr. Danielson has had on his kids and on the community. Many South End families were also shocked. One parent said they were speechless. Jenifer Lopez, a Filipina American mother of two living in Columbia City, felt the news of his resignation on a visceral level. “It felt squarely like a gut punch,” she said. And absolutely everyone was angry for Dr. Danielson. “Give him what he needs! I’m pissed! They were supposed to do right by him, I don’t feel like they did,” Cunningham said.

A few parents commented that the last time they saw Dr. Danielson, his face looked exhausted in a way that it never had before. Rokea Jones, a Black South End parent living at the border between Rainier Beach and Skyway with her five-year-old daughter, believes they might have been among the last patients that saw Dr. Danielson before he stepped down. “There was something you can see from him that he was exhausted in a way I hadn’t experienced in him before,” Rokea said. “Maybe it was that particular day or maybe he knew that this was coming to a close. And he couldn’t tell his patients goodbye.”

Others imagined that he was now feeling uncomfortable about the staggering amount of attention called to him as a result of his resignation being announced in Crosscut. Litonya Lester, a white South End parent living just south of Kubota Garden with Zarah, age two, said, “He’s a very humble person who does not want it to be all about him. He wants it to be about making a better world, a better city — and state — for children.”

In short, these South End families cared. They cared about Dr. Danielson with the same depth of care that they had received from him for decades.

While everyone expressed a range of emotions, including shock, in trying to process his departure, it is notable that not one South Seattle parent was surprised at the reasons behind Dr. Danielson’s resignation. Whether BIPOC or white, there was no doubt in their minds that his descriptions of racial injustice perpetrated by Seattle Children’s Hospital were true, just like any other large white institution. “It’s kind of the same story everywhere,” said Che Sheyun, a South End father of two biracial children and Korean American artist living in the Central District. “You try to push for change and hold people accountable. They attack the person as if they are the issue.”

But from this collective grief and heartache has come a loyalty that is only reserved for someone with the stellar reputation and level of integrity that Dr. Danielson holds. Even as South End families shed tears, lamenting the loss of Dr. Danielson as their provider and as their OBCC Medical Director, in the next breath they said they believed he would only resign if it was the best choice available to him. Not one parent doubted that Dr. Danielson’s sacrifice was for the long-term betterment of children’s health outcomes, despite their own individual losses for their family’s care. “I’m sure he stepped down because he figured the impact will be better,” said Tirzah Idahosa, a Black South End parent who raised her kids, including foster children, many of whom were autistic or otherwise disabled, in Renton. “Maybe not immediately, but in the long-term. Because a light has been shed.”

When asked what they would like to say to Dr. Danielson, if given the opportunity, South End families said they would like to thank and honor him. They wished to tell him they understood and respected his decision. They wanted to give him blessings for rest, recovery, and love. Many wanted to know where he was going. Still others wanted guidance on how best to advocate for him and for their families. “I’m actually looking for him now. First, to honor him. You need to give honor where honor is due.” Foxy Davison said. Davison is a Black mother of three, two of whom have sickle cell anemia, who used to live in the Central District. “Second, I would ask him what the hell we are supposed to be doing now. I don’t know how to navigate this. Part of it is really scary to navigate, because we still need to interact with Children’s.” Without Dr. Danielson’s tender presence with them, parents like Davison severely doubted they would receive anywhere near the same level of holistic treatment from SCH without him there.

Ever since his official departure from SCH less than two weeks ago, the community has been up-in-arms rallying to support Dr. Danielson, fiercely defending his message for health care equity in the treatment of Black and Brown staff and families. Two petitions have been started in his name. One by families of Seattle Children’s Hospital and Odessa Brown Community Clinic with the statement, “As medical experts, you must know that the racism — and more specifically anti-Blackness — that ultimately led Dr. Danielson to feel he couldn’t in good conscience continue at SCH is a threat to the well-being of all your patients and staff.” Another petition, started by the Seattle community at large, is now approaching 25,000 signatures. Stakeholders sent a letter to Seattle Children’s CEO, Dr. Jeff Sperring, demanding clear actions. A rally was held for Dr. Danielson last Saturday demanding racial justice. Local celebrity Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty, who was a co-signer of the aforementioned stakeholders’ letter along with his wife Tricia Davis, wore a sweatshirt stating, “I believe Dr. Ben Danielson” as the “12th Man” flag atop the Space Needle was raised ahead of a Seattle Seahawks game. South End families and much of the Seattle community are eager for the chance to finally take care of Dr. Danielson.

Dr. Danielson will continue to practice as a pediatrician part-time at the University of Washington School of Medicine (UW Medicine). In addition to the announcement of his new role at UW Medicine, came the heartwarming news that he’s also working on a new program at the UW to advance health equity. His families anxiously await what opportunities might be around the corner for him. They wish him the same ethical treatment and respect he generously gave to them with effortless regularity.

Accountability is part of belonging with and to each other. It is part of care and an essential component to being in relationship. For South End families, and for Dr. Danielson, true accountability to community is an ongoing practice, not a singular transaction. What remains to be seen is whether Seattle Children’s will meet the moment and engage in a practice of true accountability. Will Seattle Children’s take responsibility for the harm done to its relationship with South End families and seek a pathway to healing? Or will their behavior continue to be shocking but not surprising? Do they care enough to practice true accountability? True accountability is transformative. It’s time for Seattle Children’s to transform.

Adana Protonentis is a consultant, advocate, scholar, and a mother. As an organizational development consultant, Adana helps organizations put their values into practice and develop strategies that promote cultures of care, belonging, and accountability. She identifies as a mixed race, Black, disabled woman and her work is rooted in the belief that our stories have the power to heal and liberate. She lives in South King County with her two kids, husband, and two dogs.

Jasmine Pulido is a Filipinx American writer in Seattle, WA. You can find her blog at “Shameless Jas,” where she discusses all the topics people are too ashamed to talk about, alongside unapologetically airing anything else on her mind. She enjoys forest bathing, nerdy topics, and racial-social justice. Jasmine holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with an emphasis on ecology, behavior, and evolution and a minor in psychology from the University of California San Diego.

Featured image: Dr. Ben Danielson at the Black Health Equity rally Jan. 9, 2021, by Susan Fried.

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