It was a startling dichotomy when I realized as a desperately ill patient, that I was complicit, by affiliation, in a supposed health care system that didn’t always see me, didn’t always believe me, and thus, isn’t reliably for me.
I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second daughter and in excruciating pain. The kind of pain that I knew wasn’t normal labor pain as I experienced just 18 months prior with the birth of my first daughter. As my husband drove us back to the hospital, I literally felt my mental clarity slipping from my grip. I muttered softly and painfully, “Babe, don’t let them send me back home. Don’t let them, babe.”
Holding me up as we re-entered the same emergency department we had just visited earlier that day, I faintly recall my husband fiercely declaring, “My wife is not ok, and we ain’t leaving.”
Within an hour I was being admitted with a diagnosis of septicemia. I could not undergo a cesarean section because of the severe infection. My labor was immediately induced. Although I preferred all the drugs available to me for a pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, an epidural could not be offered because of the sepsis, we were told.
My insurance status, quality prenatal care, mixed income neighborhood, six-figure salary, clinical training and experience, and proficient medical literacy did not protect me from the insidious disease of medical racism.
In these moments, and the many years of subsequent reflection, not only am I clear that my life was in serious danger, but I also survived a lasting trauma. A trauma of greater significance. A trauma that black bodies in pain inside of medical spaces experience with perverse normalcy. The trauma of not being believed and receiving subpar differential care.
My insurance status, quality prenatal care, mixed income neighborhood, six-figure salary, clinical training and experience, and proficient medical literacy did not protect me from the insidious disease of medical racism. And, I am not alone. The well-known birthing traumas of Beyonce and Serena Williams represent millions of black birthing stories. Their stories have brought national “attention” to the fact that black women in the United States are three times as likely to die due to pregnancy-related complications than white women, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Yet, we continue to wait on nationally sanctioned and coordinated “intention” for repair. Atrociously, these injustices are not just a black maternal health phenomenon. Research has evidenced that black people — including our children — grievously and unnecessarily endure pain due to pervasive racism and bias in the assessment and treatment of pain.
This is not news. A myriad of racial and ethnic disparities in health status and health care are well documented. The landmark publication “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” placed the issue of racial and ethnic inequalities in health status and health care on the nation’s health policy agenda. It called for a comprehensive, multisector strategy including providers, patients, payors, health plan purchasers, and society at large to address the health and social conditions that are barriers to optimal health and well-being.
Years before, and certainly since 2020, many national medical and public health associations have acknowledged and apologized for the various forms of racism previously ignored and perpetuated by their organizations, as microcosms of the broader system. While these are necessary and incremental first steps, lauding ourselves for incrementalism is just short of complicit as black and brown lives literally lay in the balance. The time to address health trauma and health injustice and their impact on the well-being and life expectancy of our community is now — and I believe our region can lead the way.
Health Forward Foundation and KC Health Collaborative, in partnership with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and other local thought leaders, including those with lived experience, seek to unite the region’s health ecosystem to collectively understand and pursue bold actions of restorative justice in health and health care. The Kansas City Health Equity Learning and Action Network is facilitating shared understanding, shared language, and shared actions that pursue this aim.
The time to address health trauma and health injustice and their impact on the well-being and life expectancy of our community is now — and I believe our region can lead the way.
Indeed, I have experienced hope from high-quality, culturally responsive care right here in our great city. With intention, I have worked diligently to maintain power in self-advocacy in clinical spaces. I have barred bitterness from my heart, and embraced the power of vulnerability, influence, joy, and liberation to turn my pain into purpose. I am referring to healing.
It is now our collective time to heal. The work of the KC Health Equity Learning and Action Network is a call for healing. Healing of hearts, mindsets, systems, practices, policies, and people. It is a call for deep introspection and repair. It is a call to unapologetically pursue antiracism in governance, leadership, budgeting, staffing, quality improvement, policy, and countless other areas. It is a call for bold intention and courageous action that results in the fair and just opportunity for everyone to thrive and be healthy. It’s our time.