By Bill Fletcher Jr
I just had my annual physical. Every December or January I make it a point to have one. Even when my healthcare provider, some years back, said that I did not need to come in yearly, I ignored them and visited annually.
While I was awaiting my doctor I had an unusual and disturbing conversation with a nurse who I see when I come for appointments. She was very distraught and told me that she was changing jobs (in the medical profession) for several reasons but that one was how unsettled she was about the condition of Black American health.
I assumed that she was talking about the statistics with which many of us are familiar, such as the discrepancy in treatment for blacks vs. whites, or the higher rates of prostate cancer among black men compared with white men. No, that was not actually what she was talking about. She said, “Mr. Fletcher, our people are just not taking care of themselves.”
Once she had started to talk there was no stopping her. She was both angry and sad at the condition of Black American health. She spoke with me about how patient after patient refuses to come in for important tests; that when notified about special clinics, e.g., diabetes, too many Black clients take a pass; and that appointments that are made, are so quickly broken.
I listened to her and said that there seems to be a high level of denial when it comes to health among too many African Americans. A friend of mine, I mentioned to her, who had a history of colon cancer in his family, refused to get checked out, including after he had troubling symptoms. By the time he was checked out he was in Stage 4 of colon cancer and subsequently died.
There is a perverse approach to health that many of us suffer from. If the problem were only that people could not afford healthcare, this could be addressed by political demands to expand healthcare coverage (note: which we will need to do in any case given the weaknesses of the healthcare reform legislation passed in 2009 and the potential threat to it by the Republicans). But that is not what my nurse was talking about. She was addressing the problem of people who HAVE healthcare coverage but are in utter denial of the need for regular checkups, screening, preventive care and addressing problems as soon as they emerge.
Too many of us seem to be operating on the basis of the notion that it is better to not know. I understand that. I understand that once you find out the truth your life may change. An associate of mine, years ago, refused to get an HIV test after his wife was tested positive for HIV and later AIDS. He never, to my knowledge, got the test, despite pleas from his wife. I am sure that he is no longer with us.
While we can make excuses for not taking care of ourselves, e.g., we have too much going on in our lives, at the end of the day it does not add up. Leaving aside the many contributions most of us can make if we lead good, productive, long lives, what about those who depend on us? Or is this really about some sort of collective death wish that emerges from despair about the conditions that we are in? In either case, it is taking away from us, prematurely, those we need and love, and leaving in its place a low-intensity sadness that becomes so very hard to shake.
I was told a story recently of a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was at the stage where she was informed that she needed a mastectomy. She refused on the grounds that men would no longer find her attractive following such an operation. Needless to say, she died. I kept wondering who she left behind when she passed away and whether her appearance actually mattered when she was in a casket.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.