How One Woman’s Story Of Medical Neglect Highlights The Pervasive Issue Of Racism In Healthcare
As of late, the world has started to grapple with the fact that racism and inequities are entrenched in every system and structure that exists. Healthcare is no exception. There are innumerable studies that highlight the ways that bias permeates the healthcare field. Harriet Washington’s groundbreaking book Medical Apartheid looked at this in more detail, examining the ways that Black bodies have been medically harmed throughout the history of the United States. Not only are there racial disparities in perceptions of pain tolerance, but the Black maternal mortality rates are staggering. There is also evidence of educators being penalized for teaching students about racial disparities in medicine. In a recent example of potential medical malpractice, a nurse named Kelly Morris went viral on TikTok for a series of videos where she joked about “giving her patients too many pills, lying about vital signs, or acting as though she doesn’t care when a patient dies.” For Black, brown and other marginalized communities, pervasive racial biases could be fatal. Dr. Angela Anderson is a leadership expert, best-selling author, speaker and trainer who recently shared in an Instagram post a jaw-dropping account of the medical neglect she experienced during a health scare. In an email, Dr. Anderson shared her recent experiences, why it was so important to share her story, and ways that healthcare can improve the experiences of patients from racially marginalized backgrounds.
Janice Gassam Asare: I saw a heartbreaking post on your Instagram page about your recent experience with a healthcare provider. Can you share a bit more about what happened for the Forbes readers?
Angela Anderson: I wish my story was uncommon, but unfortunately it is not. One night I was preparing for bed after a long work day and noticed an immediate and very localized pain in the right side of my chest and back…it was so uncomfortable that I was unable to sit or lie down because of the pain. I made it through the night and the next morning went to the nearest urgent care facility. I was asked to wait in my car because I reported chest pain and shortness of breath…after waiting an hour without being seen by a provider, I was told to go to another urgent care location because there was no one who could read a chest x-ray if I needed one. I never saw a provider and no vitals were taken. At the second facility, I was greeted with frustration and hostility because the staff didn’t appreciate the first facility sending me to them. They expressed their displeasure at my arrival. Again, presenting with chest pain and shortness of breath, I was asked to wait in my car until a rapid Covid test could be given.
My husband, who is an MD, my daughters, and I waited for over an hour for someone to come administer the test and another 30 minutes for the results. My husband called into the facility two to three times asking when someone would be coming to do an assessment because of the pain I was in. The nurse was not pleased with the line of questioning and when she came out to administer the Covid test, she brutally jabbed the swab into my nose so far that it caused me to yell out and cry…I have had several Covid tests and never even flinched…it was so retaliatory that my husband said something to her. Her response to me [was] ‘you just need to learn how to relax.’ After a negative test result, the provider came to the car to assess me. After a thorough explanation of the symptoms by myself and my husband, the doctor looked in my nose, told me I was congested, gave a diagnosis of postnasal drip, and told me I just needed to blow my nose. He stated that the pain in my chest was because my sinuses were draining at night when I slept…I hadn’t slept because of the pain and I explained this to the doctor…causing a cough which had my chest sore. The provider never took any vital signs.
At our insistence, the provider agreed to do a chest x-ray. He told me that he ‘would be happy to hit me with a couple of doses of radiation as long as I wasn’t pregnant.’ When checking my oxygen with the pulse oximeter, he stated that sometimes ‘they don’t work on colored fingers.’ When I finally entered the facility, he put me in a room and told me that I had to wait until ‘he warmed up the x-ray machine’ and he left me standing in the room unattended. When the x-ray was completed after several attempts by the nurse, I asked the provider to explain the cloudiness on the x-ray. I was told that it was ‘hard to see the lower part of the x-ray because you have breasts.’ The provider went on to say that he was not a radiologist and it would be about an hour before the x-ray was read. He sent me home and documented that my chest x-ray was clear and I was not in respiratory distress. He told me to get another chest x-ray in two days and blow my nose several times daily for congestion.
The lack of care was so negligent that my husband reached out to the clinical director of the urgent care group to report how we had been treated. Two days later, the director made arrangements for me to be seen by a third urgent care facility. Less than one hour after I arrived, I was immediately sent to the ER where I had a CT scan, echocardiogram, and full blood work done. The ER doctor informed me that I had a pulmonary embolism in the lower lobe of my right lung, pneumonia, and an infarction in my right lung, which resulted in that part of my lung tissue dying. The first two facilities had sent me away in critical condition. I spent the next four days in the hospital with 24-hour I.V. antibiotics and blood thinner.
I couldn’t help but think, if this could happen to me and my husband [who is a M.D.] this could happen to anyone. I thought about the numerous people of color whose symptoms have been ignored or minimized. Healthcare disparities are real and far more common than we think. We have to talk about this because lives are at stake.
Asare: Why was it important for you to share what happened on your Instagram page?
Anderson: I shared my story on Instagram the day after I was released from the hospital because I could not stop thinking about how many people could be negatively impacted by the disparities in healthcare. I thought about the people who had not survived the same situation I was in. I felt like I had a personal obligation to inform people about what happened to me. I wanted people to know the importance of self-advocacy and how important it is to listen to your body and take action when things are abnormal. I was blessed to be alive and I wanted other people to know that they have the right to get the care they deserve. The way I was treated was unimaginable. I wanted my story to be heard to save lives and to put to rest any narrative that disparities in healthcare do not exist. Oddly enough, I am a diversity and inclusion executive. Now, not only was I working on national initiatives that address disparities, [but now] I have experienced it firsthand.
Asare: How do you think Black, brown and marginalized women can navigate these experiences if this ever becomes their reality?
Anderson: For women of color, unfortunately there is so much to navigate even during a medical crisis. I had to navigate through provider bias, negligence, and minimization of what I was experiencing. I would tell anyone in the same situation to advocate for yourself no matter what. Keep asking for help until your needs are met. If you have someone who can go with you to seek medical help, take someone with you who can also advocate on your behalf. We can no longer sit by and allow our voices to go unheard. Our lives and the lives of other women could potentially depend on it. This has gone on for far too long and we are not talking about it as much as we need to. Black and brown women are losing their lives in preventable situations far too often.
Asare: What do you think must happen to better the experiences of Black and brown patients, and particularly Black and brown women?
Anderson: To improve the experiences of Black and brown patients, [and] particularly women, we have to collectively raise our voices, tell our stories, and understand the importance of advocating for our care. There are still people who do not believe that stories like mine and many others exist. This issue is critical and the more attention we draw to it, the harder it will be to ignore us. We also need providers who are culturally competent and committed to providing thorough care to all people. Negligence needs to be recognized and addressed. Additional bias training and awareness for providers and hospital administrators would also be a step in the right direction.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.