By Adrianne Johnson Ross, MHA
Last month, while on her way to becoming the first Black woman U.S. Supreme Court justice in history, Ketanji Brown Jackson endured three days of blistering questioning about her judicial practices, LSAT scores, sentencing decisions and personal background. The approval process for any Supreme Court nominee is grueling, but as the condescending questions continued unchecked, all I could think was, “Here we go again.”
The sad truth is, it’s not unusual for an educated, accomplished Black woman to be extraordinarily questioned about her fitness for a job for which she is eminently qualified. This is everyday life for millions of Black women across America. Usually, it just doesn’t get any publicity.
The situation is all too familiar to me. As I worked my way up the career ladder in the South and Midwest, I encountered numerous situations in which white people with varied levels of experience and professional knowledge went out of their way to scrutinize and question my credentials and expertise. Health care in general is filled with examples of patients not showing people of color the same respect as their white peers.
‘No way to advocate for myself’
But what happens when a Black woman health care professional is also the patient?
Some years ago, as my husband and I were getting ready to go on a trip, I suddenly experienced abdominal pain so excruciating that the contractions I had felt when delivering my baby three months prior paled in comparison. Knowing I needed help, I called my parents, who immediately called an ambulance.
In the emergency room, crippled by pain and barely able to speak, I had no way to advocate for myself. To those nurses and doctors, I was just another Black woman with a baby – no wedding ring and disheveled hair. Their worst instincts took over. As I lay writhing on the gurney in the hallway, I overheard a nurse say, “She must be drug seeking.” Within minutes, I was discharged.
Three more times that day I went back to the emergency room, each time weaker and in more distress, to no avail. Finally, on the fourth trip, a friend came with me. She advocated for me, since I could no longer speak for myself and had lost consciousness.
It turned out that I was suffering from something called small bowel volvulus, a condition in which a loop of small bowel twists and cuts off blood supply and dies. The pain I felt was from a gangrenous intestine – four feet of which had to be removed – and I was septic. I very nearly died because no one in that emergency room believed a Black woman. It took four trips to the emergency department.
I know I am fortunate. I am grateful that I lived, and that I was able to go on to a rewarding career. A year and a half ago, I moved to a progressive state to serve as a leader within a health care organization that is taking its commitment to diversity and education seriously. The University of Vermont Health Network has fostered ongoing dialog, education, assessment and action in a coordinated effort to create a culture that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive for patients and employees. This commitment extends beyond the walls of our hospitals: During the pandemic, our health system held vaccine clinics specifically established for underserved communities.
‘Be a courageous ally’
But much work remains to address disparities in health care outcomes, here and across the U.S. health care system. Black women die in childbirth in the United States at a rate more than three times that of white women; Hispanic people are 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes or liver disease than white people; Native Americans die at higher rates than all other Americans in many categories, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory diseases. And there are well-documented racial disparities in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unequal treatment of people of color happens in hospitals, classrooms, and courtrooms every day – which is why it didn’t shock me when it happened to a Supreme Court nominee.
My call to all my friends, colleagues and neighbors during this Diversity Month is simply this: Be an ally to people of color. Be a courageous ally, even when it’s awkward. If you see someone being ignored, disrespected or physically or verbally abused and your instincts tell you race is at play, don’t remain silent. Speak up for those whose voice has been diminished or silenced over hundreds of years.
Be an advocate. Recognize us as human. Believe us.
It could be a matter of life or death.
Adrianne Johnson Ross, MHA, is president and chief operating officer for The University of Vermont Health Network – Home Health & Hospice.