My husband almost died last year.
It is exactly as dramatic as it sounds. For all of my attempts to reduce it, reshape it, banish it from our minds and hearts, it is what happened. At some point during the terrifying 48 hours in which his condition was worsening, there were two battles raging. The first was one he was fighting, within his own body. The second was the one we were fighting with the professionals with whom we entrusted his life.
I remember heading to the ICU to visit my husband, the morning after the fight, and running into the surgeon who had initially worked on my husband. He looked and walked right past me. No nod of acknowledgement. No curt hello. I remember thinking, Wow. My husband almost dying doesn’t make me human enough for this man to be decent and human towards me.
My husband is the strongest person I know and he survived.
I bring this up — even though I don’t care to — because my line of work often brings me in close contact with the family members of many who don’t survive the disinterest of our broken healthcare systems. We regularly hear stories of pregnant mothers who are ignored (at best) or treated poorly so that what should be a life-affirming period in their lives becomes a battle for their lives, which is often lost.
A week ago, I participated in a radio interview intending to respond to statements made by an (white, male) OBGYN regarding birth. In his almost 10-minute interview, he stated that he did not believe a woman could be coerced into birthing via C-section. In my 5-minute follow-up interview, I tried to make this point: Coercion doesn’t always mean a mean doctor yelling while pushing consent forms under one’s nose. Coercion within the context of the patient-doctor relationship is one part of a long-term relationship in which dynamics are established well before the doctor and patient even meet each other. This is something anyone who has ever sat anxiously in a doctor’s office, waiting for someone to interpret the non-stop headaches, or constant vomiting or fever that won’t abate, knows all too well. It doesn’t actually matter what happens in the moments before the pro-forma consent is granted, and the scalpel glances the skin. In my personal and professional experience, that’s not where coercion happens. It happens in the moments in which you dismiss a patient’s desperate troubleshooting and at-home research as hypochondriac ramblings. It happens when you rush patients through their allotted time, barely answering their questions. It happens when you cannot even spare a word or a nod to the woman whose husband almost died under your care.
Sociologist Arline Geronimus (real name) developed the concept of ‘weathering’ to explain the racial health disparities in the United States. Geronimus posits that the social and biological factors that compromise the health of African American womxn begin well before these womxn conceive. By the time they set foot in a healthcare facility, they have been subjected to decades of racism, subtle and overt, and their ability to push back against the advice of doctor or a nurse is significantly eroded.
Weathering. It calls to mind the image of a rock, standing solid through the ages, silently enduring and shrinking to dust, and then, to nothing.
I don’t know if 5 minutes on the radio was enough to make this point. The point was bubbling under the rage I am still holding in my throat from last year. But the point is summed up in the words of Charles Johnson, who lost his wife Kira:
More than anything I want people to understand that these women we’re losing are more than statistics. They’re mothers, they’re daughters, they’re sisters, they’re friends. And they’re leaving behind these precious children, and there’s no statistic that can quantify what it’s like to tell an 18-month-old that Mommy’s not coming home. Or to tell a two-year-old, who never will know his mom, how amazing she is.