I’ve reclaimed happiness in various ways. My hair is now mostly in braids. I want folks to recognize and understand that I’m not my hair. Therapy has been formative in helping me unpack what happens in predominantly White spaces. I’ve dedicated energy to learning how to not be angry at all White folks as a result of my experiences, but it’s been challenging. When the experiences become predictable and begin repeating themselves it can be exhausting to keep going. So I take breaks and remind myself that I don’t have to be a “strong woman”. That phrase is often a burden that’s placed specifically on women of color and it’s unfair. It’s important for me to say, “No, I’m not a strong Black woman. I am a person, I have feelings and I get tired.” Setting boundaries with both my employers and my personal relationships has been a critical part of my journey. We’re taught that happiness can be a permanent steady state, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, I try to remind myself and others that healing is constantly happening and we’re all processing on our own timelines. The most important thing is to be ok in giving yourself space to feel a range of emotions.
As I’ve grown through these experiences I’ve begun to rethink my future. A few years ago I wasn’t fully committed to pursuing medicine but I knew that I had to at least get close to the field, so I became a volunteer EMT. I don’t get paid for that work; what matters most to me is being able to help people however I can and with whatever tools I have. I especially wanted to practice in Black and Brown neighborhoods because it’s important for folks to see people who look like them taking care of them. It puts them at ease and unfortunately there are a lot of biases associated with groups of people and how they get care. Ultimately, I just want to be one more person working towards making healthcare a bit more equitable.
I have a better sense of the problems that patients face now that I’ve been an EMT for three years. For most patients, EMTs are their first contact with any sort of medical professionals because we meet them in their homes. We can look around and see how they’re living and that really affects what their health outcomes look like. I’ve witnessed what life is like for patients experiencing homelessness, food insecurity or having limited to no access to fresh food, which all contribute to their illnesses. Diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes aren’t specific to certain communities, they just happen to affect these communities as a result of their surroundings. While I have no idea what kind of physician I’ll be, my hope is that I don’t lose the empathy that I have now for these patients when I become a doctor. Medical training is exhausting and grueling and I can see the overwhelm and fatigue of the resident physicians when I greet them in the ER. The entire healthcare system is structured this way and as a result patients don’t always receive the best care.
Sometimes inequitable care comes from the overload, but it frequently stems from bias. I regularly saw the harmful effects that implicit bias has on patients. In one instance, we were treating a sickle cell patient and my EMT partner told me, “The patient mentioned they were allergic to a few medications but they’re just saying that because they want the hard stuff.” This is often referred to as “drug seeking behavior”. That term should be relabeled as a slur and we should strike it from everyone’s language. We have literature that states the biases of doling out pain medications and here it was just slapping me in the face. To think that someone with sickle cell didn’t need proper pain medicine to deal with their disorder is unbelievable.
There were many scenarios like the one above, but there is one that will always stay with me. I arrived at a patient’s home and she had chest pain, nausea and radiating pain up her neck. I remember thinking, let me treat this person as if they’re having a heart attack. I brought her to the hospital and told the nurse what I thought was happening and then asked her to set up an EKG. They seemed hesitant and when I kept insisting they told me, “Put her in bed 8.” I pushed back and urged them to get a cardiologist but they wouldn’t do it. I had to leave but right as I left the patient grabbed me and said, “Thank you for believing me.” When I asked what she meant, she responded, “I get these pains all of the time and no one pays attention.” I almost lost it. How is it that an entire medical system has failed you? When I came back to the hospital I went to look for her to see how she was doing. I asked the nurse where she was and she told me that they’d moved her to the ICU because she was having a heart attack. She didn’t make it. There’s no reason why she should have died. When heart attacks are caught pretty early, they’re very treatable. Instead, this patient was failed by everyone; she was failed by the physicians who repeatedly ignored her, the triage nurse, the entire hospital. How could all of these people think that she’d call 911, get in an ambulance and show up at the hospital with fake pain?
If anything, these experiences have helped me realize that my dreams of becoming a physician are so much broader than a love of science. I’m actually railing against the healthcare system. In many ways I feel like I’ve been railing against the system my entire life. My entire existence is defined by it. It’s exhausting but I know I have to do something. I often wonder if I should just focus on my corner of the world and pour as much as I can into helping these people feel heard and seen or if I should invest my energy into a bigger push for legislative change. I haven’t found my answer yet, so I continue working on my personal narrative and finding balance where I can. I don’t want to kill myself doing this, but I’m passionate about fighting for long lasting change and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I can.