Updated: Jun 11, 2021
I have said before that there are few things I like more than a blank page. The endless possibilities it offers aren’t easily matched. Truth be told, when I open a notebook or a GoogleDocs, I rarely know what will fill it. Except sometimes, like now, I have things to say.
I have things to say about health, about healthcare, about the difficulties of accessing it, about how race or gender or orientation or background can have an impact on how you receive the care that you need in order to be healthy or, at least, be alive.
Let’s begin with examples, you’ll understand.
Some time ago I felt a lot of pain in my kidney, and the doctor, when I went to see him, told me I should go to hospital to get some medical exams just in case it wasn’t, as I thought, a kidney stone. The overall pain and my social anxiety pushed that visit back, until an evening my boyfriend complained about a feeling of pressure in his chest and pain in the heart. This being serious, we called an ambulance.
Please keep in mind that we live in Europe, where ambulances are a common way to get to the emergency room of a hospital. When the people from the ambulance got to our place and asked us to explain, I couldn’t speak. My boyfriend explained, they barely listened, and took us to the ER where they told the nurse we were both having a panic attack. They had deduced that from the fact that we are both medicated and neither of us could explain our issues in a way they understood. They mocked us all the way there. I could barely walk, and only got a wheelchair when they realised I was slowing them down. Anyways.
When I heard that, my tongue unlocked. I have been close to death a couple of times because of not being listened to and I wasn’t going to let them treat a panic attack when I had very clear pain in my kidneys. So I explained, politely, what ailed me, and that my boyfriend had pressure in his chest, and this was not a panic attack for either of us, although we were indeed both very anxious at the idea of not getting adequate treatment. They changed what was written on the paper, or at least pretended to, and took us to the waiting room.
They called my boyfriend first, then a few minutes later, me. I did some exams and they put me on a bed for an IV and blood work. It all took a bit more than an hour. At that moment I texted my boyfriend to see how things were going. They had put him back in the waiting room. They were doing all sorts of exams on me, but had put him back in the waiting room with no further indication of looking at what was wrong. I’ll admit, it pissed me off.
The next time a nurse came by I inquired about him and asked how the exams were going. As I expected, I was told no exams were being done. They hadn’t even registered him coming in. So I took my best heartbroken-worried-white-girl voice and said I was worried about him because he had chest pains and that sounded pretty bad and he wasn’t able to express himself very clearly when he was anxious and maybe they could speed up the process to alleviate my anxiety? And guess what. 10 minutes later they were scanning for heart issues. Which he has.
What would have happened if I hadn’t spoken up? The same thing that happened every time he went to the ER before that. They would have given him a way too powerful anti anxiety and sent him home to sleep it off. But this time a white woman looked scared so they did their job on the Black man who has a mental illness and found an issue with his heart.
Another example. I have an American friend with diabetes. She had some pretty big health issues and was admitted to hospital. They did some exams and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She and I were texting and video calling regularly throughout her stay there, and I was getting increasingly worried because her health kept worsening and nobody seemed to know why.
One day she called me pretty upset. I want you all to know that my friend is a marshmallow and doesn’t get easily angry. But this time she was. She had just heard the doctor talking, right on the other side of her door, telling everyone that she was just fine and it was all in her head. I’m not a doctor but even I could see that there was something very wrong with her physical health. Yet that doctor, without any respect for her, told his team it was all in her head. Because he was unable to figure out what was wrong and my friend is a woman. Because obviously women don’t know their bodies and imagine things.
This incident reminded me of the time a gynecologist told me I didn’t know where my ovaries were. I do know where they are, thank you very much. But because of this doctor, the endometriosis diagnosis took 3 years longer than necessary. Because when a male doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with a woman’s body, most of the time they accuse the woman of making things up.
We are both white women. A Black woman in either of these situations would have been treated with even more contempt. Just like a Black man can’t possibly make a difference between a panic attack and heart issues. Just like a fat person can’t possibly have any issue that is not related to their weight.
There is a serious problem in the medical field, and it is not only lack of proper equipment or ridiculous workload.
From the therapist who doesn’t dig any deeper than an ADHD diagnosis, thus missing the psychosis and hallucinations underneath, to the medical assistant who can’t sign or speak at a higher volume to care for a hard of hearing patient, or the paramedics who shouts in the patient’s ear instead of showing his face so that the deaf patient can read his lips, or simply write things down, this problem goes across all fields and all countries. When Black women die in childbirth because their pain isn’t taken seriously, when Black men are overmedicated because they are believed to be more resistant to medication, when people of colour are left to wait for hours in the ER while white people are admitted immediately, when disabled people have to fight to get treatment for ailments that aren’t related to their disabilities, the system is failing all of us.
Preconceptions are harmful and sometimes lead to death. If the nurses and doctors had listened to me when I was 19, they wouldn’t have wasted hours checking for extra uterine pregnancy while I had peritonitis. My mother wouldn’t have had to hear “if she had been admitted just an hour later, your daughter would be dead”. I am lucky, I came out of it alive. Imagine if my skin had been another hue.
How many lives must we lose before we realise there is something we need to fix? How many life altering traumas must we go through? How many examples must we put together for someone to do something about it? We have proof. There are flaws in our medical systems.
Ask medicine students if they know how a rash would look like on dark skin. How to recognise dehydration in people of colour. How to spot a bruise, a scar, hell, how to find a vein on a skin that isn’t white. It’s not in the manuals.
It’s about time something changed. We can’t afford to have racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, any kind of -ism in our healthcare systems. We can’t afford to have medical professionals who don’t know how, or even want, to listen to their patients. We can’t afford to have a “on a scale from 1 to 10 how bad is your pain” scale that doesn’t take into account the medical history of the patient. We can’t afford to have manuals that don’t include everyone. We can’t afford to lose any more people because some of us don’t fit the narrow standards that are taught in school. Enough is enough.