Racial Discrimination in Healthcare


It’s nearly 4 a.m. and the harsh fluorescent lights of the emergency-room hospital hallway are beaming down on my mother’s numb face. She had lost hearing in her ears and could see double. Lights and noise sent her into a pounding migraine as she tried not to vomit. Nurses and doctors pace back and forth in the hallways passing my mother, Madelene Spinner, as she lays in a stretcher by an exit door. It has been hours upon hours of waiting in a stretcher with no care or check-up as she sat in pain. 

Upon receiving help hours later, doctors paid my mom little attention. Disregarding her symptoms of headache, ear pain, and double vision as a mere cold. She explained the severity of the symptoms and how long they have been happening for- nothing happened. She mentioned she worked at the exact hospital herself as a social worker- still nothing. Around 11 in the morning, she gets sent home from the hospital with no advice besides taking a couple of Tylenol. 

“I tried to tell them I’ve been downing Tylenol for nearly a week,” she faintly whispered to me in a tired voice. I could hear the pain and frustration in her voice as she explained the situation. It’s not like my mom to hurt like this- I have never seen her in such pain. I knew from the sound of her voice alone that no amount of Tylenol would cure this pain. 

She did not even have to communicate her heartbreak over this neglect, it was written all over her face. She tried to fight back tears as they began to well up in her eyes. She is the type of person who works so hard and never takes a sick day. Mom said, “You know me, I just push through these types of things.” She’s got this kindred spirit, with enough patience in her heart for days. She respectfully asked for help and respectfully listened to the doctors. These doctors didn’t give her a fraction of the patience that she gave them. She makes it her mission to ensure the quality of care for all patients of color are met while on the clock for this very reason.

The image of my mother laying on a cold hard stretcher for hours in her place of work is something that breaks my heart. Because of Covid, she’s not even able to have anyone there to hold her hand. My father and I waited impatiently in the parking lot. As nurses that she recognized pass by, they don’t even glance at her. She questioned if it was the fact that she wasn’t wearing scrubs. It took my mom mentioning that she is an employee for them to promptly get her a glass of water.

This scenario of patient negligence is all too common across America. Studies show that many doctors don’t hear Black women or see their pain. Professor and Director at Harvard School of Public Health’s, Ana Langer, thinks this is a huge problem, “Basically, black women are undervalued,” she said. “They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed.” According to The National Partnership for Women and Families, “Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women”. I have often heard about these injustices in the healthcare industry, but never have I witnessed it so blatantly than with my mother. 

Prior to this emergency room visit, my mom visited with other physicians to try to figure out what the cause was. They all insisted it was a common cold or a sinus infection. All of her appointments and check-ins, and still no doctor was able to catch what the underlying cause was until her third hospital visit- a rare form of eye stroke, called Third Cranial Nerve Palsy. This diagnosis refers to nerve damage in the brain, in a part that affects oculomotor function.

My mother’s symptoms escalated until the point at which her left eyelid closed and became paralyzed. “I’m no hypochondriac, so I knew there was something wrong with me,” she said. She appeared to have an eternal wink, with her sweet rosy cheeks shining through behind her big round frames. She still managed to look so sweet and precious.

After another trip to the emergency room, now with the inability to open her eye, doctors finally took her seriously. They discovered that if she had not gone as soon as she did to get help, she could have had permanent nerve damage and potentially lost eyesight. This realization perplexed my mother because of the number of times she sat patiently waiting for the treatment she just now received. If they neglected her for any longer, she would have experienced irreversible damage. Now with a clear understanding of what is at the root of the issue, my mom can begin to take strides in the right direction. 

Although times have progressed, there is still a stark image painted within the medical system and how women of color are historically mistreated and neglected. As society made medical advancements, doctors practiced the procedures and experiments on Black women, who at the time, were completely out of control of their bodies and their lives. Dr. J Marion Sims is commonly referred to as the “father of modern gynecology” from the 1800s. It was known for him to pay slave owners to experiment on their enslaved women as he developed the speculum. He performed on slaves without anesthetics or proper equipment. 

Anarcha, one of the women who endured a multitude of Sims’ procedures without any anesthesia, is a prominent figure in medical history. Some refer to her story to rationalize the notion that Black women feel pain differently than white women and they can endure more pain and suffering than their counterparts. 

This notion still lingers in the medical field to this day, with Black women suffering from modern-day medical neglect. If it weren’t for the persistence of my family to continue to get my mother checked out, the severity of her case could have increased. It’s truly eye-opening to see how my mother was treated until she stated her position. It shouldn’t matter what job you have or what people you know when it comes to receiving medical care. This goes to show that there is an imperative shift in the medical field that needs to take place. The way doctors handle patients and disregard their symptoms is a life or death situation that disproportionately affects people of color.

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