A typical visit to the doctor for a black woman can be anything but. Stories earlier this month about Serena Williams’ horrifying medical ordeal and the high post-pregnancy mortality rates of black women show their medical concerns are often dismissed, ignored, or even chastised. Navigating the terrain of the medical world is hard enough—and even harder when the color of your skin can mean the difference between life and death, or receiving the right tests to diagnose what ails you in between.
Given this environment, many black women have found their own ways to advocate for their health, and we talked to several of them. From making a full-on production about their pain to asking a “thousand questions a thousand different ways,” according to one woman we chatted with, there are many different ways it’s done.
Jonell Jaime Logan, Charlotte, North Carolina
I had to switch doctors once because I was on a particular medication—birth control—and was starting to have adverse reactions to it: insomnia, paranoia, and headaches all the time. I didn’t have these beforehand. I told the doctor the pills weren’t working. She put me on something else and I had more side effects.
I did more research independently to look at the side effects of this “alternative” and I had all of the symptoms, every last one of them. I went back and said this is a problem. She was dismissive. Ultimately I told her what kind of birth control I wanted. The second I was done with that, I was fine. Everything went back to normal.
Since that moment, I’ve constantly asked questions and pushed back with doctors if they’re dismissive. You’re never sure of the intention or why it’s happening. There are issues of gender and definitely issues around race. It’s tricky, especially with someone new, if you don’t know the doctor’s patterns of behavior or how they treat people across their practice. My position is I’m not concerned about what your issue is with me. If I’m not satisfied with your service and you’re not addressing than my concerns, then we need to revisit that.
Patrina Powell-Gourdet, Brooklyn, New York
I’ve had three pregnancies but several miscarriages before that. When I was pregnant with Chelsea, who was my first full term pregnancy, I ended up having to get steroid shots in my stomach because there was a sack of blood over her placenta. I didn’t know what the steroid shots were for. I was 26 and he said, “this will save your baby.” I had no idea what it was going to do. But the thought of going through another miscarriage was terrifying.
I get all the way through the pregnancy, go into labor, and I’m not dilating. I didn’t fathom having to have a C-section. It never crossed my mind because we never had a conversation about it. My OB/GYN just said, "you’re young, you’ll be able to push her out, don’t worry about it." After 24 hours of labor, he decided to do a C-section. They knocked me out without having a conversation about what I might want—they never asked such questions and I was in a lot of pain.
I switched doctors because my first experience delivering didn’t seem to include me. There was no plan or discussion. I wasn’t informed about things. I felt hushed. Like I kept getting shut down and dismissed. I loved my new doctor. She was an older woman, had her practice for 20 years, and was very sweet. I told her everything I went through and she comforted me. That empowered me to do more research on my own. But because another doctor did my c-section, I could not give birth naturally again. I wanted to, but medically she said it wasn’t safe.
Then I had my twins. Having twins after two C-sections is like carrying a watermelon around in a plastic bag. Two babies inside of an area that is already weakened because it’s been cut twice. It’s almost unbearable. I ended up having to have a hysterectomy after that birth. Unfortunately, I was in the dark again because she did not explain to me what the hysterectomy was going to do to my body—the early menopause and everything.
She brushed it off like the hysterectomy wasn’t a big issue, but it is. It takes away something huge—the ability to have a baby is so important to many women. If that first doctor would have given me more options, that could have changed the course of my life. I’m looking into becoming a doula for this reason, so I can help educate and support other women like me.
Bonita Rush, Indian Trail, North Carolina
In 2012, I was having really bad headaches. They came out of the blue. I went to the ER three times in a seven-day period and every time they sent me home. They did a CT scan, which came back negative. But the headaches persisted. I ended up having a seizure, went back to the ER, and was adamant something was wrong. I said, “If you guys are not going to do an MRI, give me a neuro consult so I can get in fairly quickly because something isn’t right.” I got the neuro consult. The doctor said the CT scan was clear. I pushed for the MRI, and he said, “Let’s see if we can get you in today." I ended up having blood clots in about 70 percent of the right side of my brain.
They did a direct admission to the hospital and I was there for ten days to get the blood clots broken up. Now when I visit my speciality or primary doctors, I do my research first and I’m asking a thousand questions a thousand different ways. I read medical journals so I can stay informed. Do whatever you need to in order to confirm or not, but you’re not just going to send me out of here. That’s never going to happen again.
Crystal Richardson, Danville, Virginia
I’ve had positive experiences. When I got my annual exam at the gynecologist’s office, the doctor was really open when I said I was in a same sex relationship. I felt like the doctor was helpful, informative, and open-minded. The doctor I have now is an African-American woman, but before I went to an older white man. I remembered thinking to myself, could I have had the same conversation if he was still my doctor?
For people of color, I feel strongly about how there are many layers to that type of advocacy. Just being in the African-American community alone, I think about the number of health issues we face collectively. Being in the LGBTQ community and having those things combined can be harmful and stressful. When I’m seeing a doctor in a different place for my healthcare services, I wonder if this person going to understand any of my issues?
I’m always concerned about implicit bias. People like to think they don’t have issues with people of color or LGBTQ people, but we all have some kind of implicit bias because our opinions are shaped around how we grew up and the things we believe in. Being in those situations can be stressful because you wonder if the medical professional is treating differently because you’re black and/or gay. You might wonder if it’s safe to freely talk about your issues and get the healthcare that you need.
Monica Johnson, 32, New York, New York
About five years ago, I experienced a really intense pain in my right shoulder. I went to see an orthopedic surgeon that I knew and he brushed it off as pain that could be solved with medication. I said it was really, really bothering me; I couldn’t lift my arm. At the time I was exercising, so I knew what exercise pain felt like—like a muscle spasm. But this was different. I wasn’t able to lift my arm or pick up a glass. It would hurt when I was sleeping to the point where I was crying in my sleep.
I knew it was something more, but he said he’d give more medication and an x-ray. It came back clear and he repeated it was something that could be solved with medication and dismissed it. I took the medication for a couple days, but it wasn’t working. I did some research on my own for doctors who handle leg and shoulder injuries and came across a doctor here in New York.
He got me checked out with an MRI to see what was really going on with the muscle. He confirmed what he thought I had: a slap tear. It was so severe I had to go in for surgery a week later. This experience taught me that you always have to get a second opinion and go with your gut. I knew something was severely wrong, not just an injury from the gym or something that would get better on its own. Doctors aren’t going to be 100 percent correct. Even though they have the doctor title, it doesn’t mean they have the answers to everything.
Karen Lowe, Hickory, North Carolina
It’s taken some time to advocate for myself. My doctor is a woman of color, so it’s kind of easier. I was never a big fan of the doctor, so I didn’t always listen, but my current doctor is very supportive, knows that, and keeps me focused.
For a lot of African-Americans, doctors aren’t always their favorite people. I grew up with, “When something ails you, the good lord is going to fix it.” You only go to the doctor in extreme emergencies. I have taken that philosophy toward my health. Luckily for me, the ailments I have, even though they’ve been bad, have not been fatal. I’ve had a chance to work on them. Some people never know or wait so long and there’s not a lot to do about it. It makes it easier because my doctor understands the views of people coming in. If I feel like not doing something, she says I don’t have have to. She’s more patient even if I’m reluctant to tell her what’s going on.
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