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Medical Racism is Killing Black Women

TW: Racism, ableism, torture and slavery mentions

Have you ever felt like you were shouting at the top of your lungs, but no one around you can hear you? The year 2018 offered up more physical, mental and emotional pain than I never thought was possible. And some of it was at the fault of doctors who were not equipped to do their jobs.

In March of 2018, after a psychotic break, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I. Since then, I’ve done a lot of work with therapy and finding the proper medication, and for the most part, my life now feels relatively “normal.” But even though all of this is true, there will always be judgment from others.

Sadly, one of the worst places I’ve felt judged is within the medical care system. This is a significant problem that has plagued the Black community, and even more so Black women, perpetuated during slavery.

Medical racism is the systematic and wide-spread prejudice and discrimination within the medical system. Its reach includes things like food deserts, typically in Black and Brown communities that don’t allow the areas access to healthy food. It also causes disparity within the American healthcare system and is responsible for biases held by healthcare workers.

Racial discrimination in pain assessment shows that Black patients are 40% less likely to receive pain medication. Another study shows that medical students are likely to believe that Black people have tougher skin and experience less pain than white people. These beliefs stem from torturous experiments on Black slaves. 

Medical racism is deadly. It almost killed Amy Mason-Cooley, a Black woman with sickle cell disease whose pain was dismissed, and doctors decided to take her off her meds.

And it nearly killed me.

I have a history of seizures. A few months after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I spent eight days in the ICU after I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance for having three seizures. I was diagnosed with cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a blood clot behind my right eye. 

After being diagnosed with a condition as serious as this, you would think that any related symptoms would be seen of the utmost importance to keep me healthy and safe, which is why the events following were so traumatic.

Six months later, I was traveling abroad in Costa Rica. But I ended up having to come early, I was shaking, losing control of my limbs, slurring my words and even experiencing aphasia. The words were on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t get them to come out.

After a week, the symptoms got even worse, I couldn’t even put on my own shirt. I had no choice but to go to the ER, where I waited ten hours to see a doctor. I saw other people come in and out. My symptoms were “not serious” so I continued to fall to the bottom of the list. It was only after I yelled that I refused to get my vitals checked for the fourth time and demanded to be put in a room that I finally saw a physician.

I was in and out of the room in twenty minutes. No medications were ordered. I was basically told to up the dosage on the seizure medication I was already taking. The next day, I woke up and I could barely walk.

Rushed back to the ER again, before I could even be put in a wheelchair I seized in the parking lot. I became hysterical, immediately rushed into a room. The doctor came in and I’ll never forget what he said to me.

“Well they ran a bunch of tests yesterday and they couldn’t find anything, what do you want us to do?”

I begged them to help me so I could go home. Instead, they discharged me for “being difficult.”

Can you imagine what it’s like to have your pain minimized because you have a mental disability? It wasn’t until I reached a third emergency room and was placed with a Black doctor that I received proper treatment. 

The stereotype of the strong Black women works against us when you don’t believe our pain. In my case, my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder further blackballed me. I was seen as dramatic and out of my mind, even when dealing with a medical issue that has had already impacted me in the past.

I get nervous whenever I experience any sort of pain in my body. I rarely consider going to the doctor to have something checked out unless the pain is unbearable. I function under the assumption that it’s a waste of my time.

The Tuskegee experiment in America used Black men as guinea pigs by intentionally giving them syphilis without their consent by offering “free health care.” This experiment only ended in 1972 after public pressure.

When there is such a push worldwide for the COVID-19 vaccine, doctors are having a hard time reaching communities of colour for a multitude of reasons, one being the distrust between the Black community and health care.

How do we get Black people to trust a system that for so long has deceived them? 

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