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Historic Disparities in Healthcare for African Americans & People of Color

America You Still Don’t Get It: The Corona Virus, Racial Hatred and Discrimination

During one of the morning talk shows, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib suggested that during this time of pandemic crisis citizens should tell their stories. I thought, what a wonderful idea. However, what I did not know was that grassroots comments are not readily accepted within some white-owned and operated printed and visual news media markets. There’s a lot of discussion on the need for more open dialogue on the issues of racism in this country, while in reality, many newsrooms discard the opinion pieces and comments submitted by the African American grassroots community.

This particular opinion piece will focus on the healthcare disparities of African Americans and people of color. It would be negligence on my part if I did not also applaud the work that many of our healthcare workers are providing during this time of pandemic crisis. I also recognize that all health care workers are not “saints”, nor do all wear “halos”.

When my African ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, they were considered 3/5 human. Many died on route to this land, due to starvation, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever. Created by a tight disease controlled space. The physical and mental state of the black slave was insignificant to the “Slave Master”, who perceived the black slave as less than human, and equal to a beast of burdens like that of an ox, mule, or donkey.

The disparities in the healthcare of African Americans begin long before the Corona Virus and has continued since the landing of the first black slaves on these shores some 400 years ago. This includes a clinical study directed by the United States Public Service Department between 1932 and 1970 where black men were injected with the syphilis virus. Many African American women, including civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer, were sterilized during the 1960s by white doctors, without their knowledge or consent. This was part of the Mississippi Plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in that state.

African American physician Dr. Charles Drew’s research on blood plasma and transfusions led to the improvements in blood storage, and the formation of the Blood Bank. His research also helped medics save lives during World War II. Unfortunately, Dr. Drew became a victim of his own life-saving discovery when he was denied blood plasma by a racially biased medical facility following an accident.

This same America now crams brown people seeking the safe refuge of this country into cages where they live under deplorable and unsanitary conditions. These spaces include adults, children, and infant babies infested with lice, and these refugees are denied medical care.

Today the disparity continues in America’s criminal justice system that allows some white felons to serve out their criminal convictions within the comforts of their homes as a form of protection against this deadly virus. By contrast, black male felons are expected to serve out their full sentence with little or no protection from exposure to Corona Virus.

Healthcare in this country should not be a privilege, but a right. Every individual seeking healthcare should be provided a service space that includes an atmosphere of respect and dignity, and that embraces all in need of medical care. This has become an increasing problem for African Americans, entering healthcare facilities located in predominately white affluent communities. In Michigan and throughout this country, there are two healthcare systems. One for whites, and the other for African Americans and people of color.

The healthcare of African Americans and people of color has become Intern and Resident doctor managed. Experienced staff doctors have become less accessible, less committed, and more removed from decisions related to patient care. An atmosphere in which many African American patients and people of color have become teaching specimen, stripped of their patient rights and defenses, without a source to whom they can really hold accountable.

I have a long list of personal experiences with racism and the healthcare system in this country. However, I will only cite one example. After a sleepless night of intense abdominal pain, my primary care doctor suggested, I seek immediate medical care by going to the emergency room. A white male resident doctor and a white female nurse were in charge of my medical care. The white female nurse did not return to the emergency room that I now occupied. She also ignored my calls for assistance over a time span of eight hours. I then watched that same nurse provide medical care to a white male patient directly across the hall.

The white male resident doctor became belligerent after I asked for an explanation for the intense pain in my stomach. He suggested I use the pain killers prescribed by my neurologist for a condition called neuropathy or undergo a form of exploratory surgery, like some kind of laboratory animal, which I found completely insensitive and dismissive. When I asked to speak with the staff doctor I was told he was busy.

I do not fear death, but what I do fear is how I will be treated when I am too old and too weak to serve as my own advocate. It is my prayer it will be with dignity and respect. I shudder when I think of what could have happened if I had been in a critical state, and helpless. This form of hatred comes from home to the workplace and should be screened out of the healthcare system.

The female nurse and doctor in question are armed with racial intolerance and indifference. They are in a position to determine whether a patient lives or dies. Such disparities in the healthcare of people of color could very well be a death sentence for African Americans, who encounter this type of racism throughout their lifetime.

After eight hours of abandonment, I informed the Nurses Station I was leaving due to medical neglect. No one seemed concerned or asked for an explanation. The abdominal pain remained with me, along with the increased stress and elevated blood pressure. This was not the first time I had been denied medical care within this or other healthcare facilities. Unfortunately, neither the Michigan Department of Civil Rights nor any federal civil rights agency in this country provides African Americans and people of color with a fair and honest form of redress to such issues.

Based on my prior attempts to seek assistance from the Office of Patient Relations I have concluded this office is nothing more than a protective cover for white racism and the status quo. After a while, the process becomes a futile attempt in which there is no support that favors the patient, who with the passing of time grows weary, and gives up pursuing the complaint.

I’m an African American, who is female, elderly, and grassroots. Please note, my grief is not for me or the lack of compassion shown me, but for all those who look like me, people of color, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, both white and black, and the LBGTQ community, who have sought out healthcare, but were received with disdain. Healthcare systems reflect the community they serve. Failure to act serves as an enabler of bad medical practice.

So, what is the first step toward a solution? The first step is to recognize that all African Americans, people of color, the poor, the homeless, the elderly and the LBGTQ community are human beings, who make up the core of the healthcare system that should include a way of thinking that promotes diversity, inclusion, and equity. We must amplify the voices and representation of each of these individuals on healthcare boards and screening committees. We must evaluate healthcare practices and recruitment that support grassroots communities that have too long been classified as marginalized.

By Delener McCamey, Ph.D


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