As hundreds mourned the loss of emergency room doctor Tamara O’Neal, many found themselves also shaking their heads at the loss of something there are too few of: black doctors.

In Illinois, about four percent of doctors are black — despite the fact more than 14 percent of Illinoisans are black, said Dr. Aisha Liferidge, an emergency physician in Washington D.C., and board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“My sense is that the African-American community is generally aware of the fact
that there is a paucity of physicians of color, such that when a person of color sees an African-American physician, that individual is viewed with a great sense of respect, but more importantly, pride,” Liferidge said.

The significance of this was not lost on O’Neal, according to her father, Tom O’Neal.

“When a black person walks into the ER and sees a black face, it’s a comforting feeling,” he said.

Also significant: O’Neal was a woman who worked in emergency medicine — a specialty dominated by men.

O’Neal, 38, was killed Nov. 19 in the parking lot outside the Mercy Hospital emergency room by her ex-fiancee, Juan Lopez, who also fatally shot Chicago Police Officer Samuel Jimenez, 28, and pharmacy resident Dayna Less, 24.

Lopez died after he was shot by police and shot himself in the head.

O’Neal’s funeral service was held Friday in Northwest Indiana, where she grew up.

“It’s just a tragic loss,” said Dr. Malika Fair, senior director for health equity partnerships and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “Black doctors are more likely to work in underserved communities.”

Fair, also an ER doctor in Washington D.C., said black doctors benefit black patients in unique ways and can provide cultural insight to colleagues.

“For example, based on where I live — in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that has limited access to grocery stores and gyms — I can make specific recommendations to patients on what’s in the neighborhood and what’s accessible — we’re getting our first gym next week,” she said.

“Physicians without that knowledge may just say, exercise more or eat more fresh vegetables, and that may not be an option for some people.”

Fair also said black doctors can inform colleagues of certain things they may never have heard about, like a rise in cardiac arrests among young black men. It was a topic she knew well: her husband recently died of a heart attack.

Tom O’Neal said his daughter, who lived on the South Side, brought everything she could to the table to help all her patients.

“She was constantly providing free medical advice to family and friends, or pretty much anyone who asked,” he said.

“This is a loss for our specialty, and black women physicians,” Fair said.