“Well, I tried, there’s nothing more to do.” These were the first words that Debra heard after the shocking death of her 37-year-old high school sweetheart and father of her children.
Debra assumed that her physically fit partner would be alright. After all he was alert, laughing and talking in the hospital room. This was a visit to the hospital, but there were no indicators that it was a life-threatening situation. So, Debra left the hospital to bring their child to school. When she returned, doctors were attempting to resuscitate him.
As Debra sought answers, the doctor simply shrugged his shoulders and walked away with no explanation for this sudden turn of events. In her grief, she managed to find another medical professional to ask for an answer. When she asked about an autopsy, she was told that autopsies are not normally performed on African Americans. Determined, she even volunteered to pay for the autopsy. Although an autopsy was ultimately approved, Debra’s experience highlights how healthcare inequities and biases can turn an already tragic event into a process of dehumanization.
Debra had a reasonable expectation that she would be treated with dignity and compassion. But on the worst day of her life, she had to navigate both the trauma of losing her partner and medical staff who acted with no interest or compelling duty to investigate the reason for his death, nor to comfort her.
After contacting the medical examiner’s office directly, it was confirmed that refusing to perform autopsies on Black people is not a policy. At this time there is no evidence that the father of Debra’s two children died due to any specific actions of medical personnel. But it is certain that Debra’s expectation to be treated with compassion was not met. According to an October 2020 poll, seven in 10 Black Americans say they’re treated unfairly by the healthcare system and 55 percent say they distrust it. Stories like Debra’s affirm this lack of confidence.
Many factors contribute to higher death rates in the Black community; one of them is the care that they receive from their providers. Medical professionals, like all humans, are not immune to having biases. These views, whether explicit or implicit, lead them to make harmful judgments. This is backed by empirical data. One study found that half of medical students and residents believed a myth that Black patients have a higher pain tolerance than white patients. Furthermore, the healthcare system frequently overlooks the physical and mental consequences of this type of differentiated treatment. Indeed, in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism itself a public health crisis.
Debra consented to share her experience in order to raise awareness, but she does fear retaliation. Others who have similar stories have not been ready to share because of this reality. These stories spark difficult conversations and make many feel uncomfortable, and sometimes defensive. However, examination of individual bias and structural breakdowns begins with uncomfortable, continued conversation.
It is crucial to recognize that initiatives have been launched to address health disparities, including discussions and policies on diversity, equity and inclusion in health care facilities in our community, across the state, and across the country. The solution must be multifaceted: not one training, webinar or panel, but a transformation that is consistently evaluated and supported. When harm comes to people, a process of acknowledgment and restoration must happen. This is the piece missing from Debra’s story. There has been no attempt to address this damage, and now she is trying to live her days without her beloved partner. Furthermore, her distrust of the medical profession is even more impacted. What does that mean for the future of healthcare for this family, and whether or not they seek medical care when needed?