by Jennifer North
I’ve been thinking a lot about the healthcare system lately. I think about it as I remind myself of all of the things I value that are in danger, both outwardly and hidden. I think about it as I remind myself of the voices of yesterday that should still be heard. Like the people who live in Puerto Rico. Or in Flint.
I think about it when I think about DACA. And I wonder why we are letting the oppressor control our narrative and focus.
So as I’ve been reminding myself that our healthcare system is still in crisis, that I rely on an individual plan for my family with multiple pre-existing conditions and ongoing mental health management needs, I’ve been reflecting on the most intimate intersection I’ve had with the healthcare system thus far. Last summer, my mother was hospitalized for more than two months and I spent quite a bit of time with her at NYU Medical Center. The staff and patients there are incredibly diverse, with a rainbow of skin colors, languages, body types, ages, dietary restrictions and anything else you might imagine.
People were separated from one another in this ecosystem based on a visual code. (Except for the patients who are stripped of mostly everything that makes then individually human.) The staff were organized by color of scrubs, lab coat or uniform. The family members by clothing, hairstyle and various places to brandish logos.
During this time, right in the middle of this time, was Charlottesville. I was moderating conversations about racism, identity and oppression by night, caring for my mother by day. Here’s the thing about privilege, when you spend half of your waking time calling out privilege, your own follows you around like a shadow.
Privilege, wealth and power have tremendous influence in the hospital setting. And it can mean life or death. It can mean the difference between staying in front of pain/anxiety/diabetes/pick-your-need-for-prompt-meds management and a downward spiral that can last hours or days.
So my goal during this time was to check my privilege in the hospital. I would not speak to healthcare workers in way that would claim power over them. I would not take healthcare workers away from people of color unless it was an emergency. I would get my mother’s booties, gowns, towels, tissues, water and whatever else I could to help to ease the burden of the staff and enable them to spend more time with the folks on my mom’s floor. I ended up helping dozens of people with their socks, booties, linens, and everything else people wanted since I know knew the content of most of the closets in the wing.
This may sound like a creative way to keep occupied when spending weeks in the hospital, but it was stressful, infuriating and really, really, hard. I had to stop myself from speaking constantly. When I did speak, I had to check my words and tone carefully before saying anything. These are not things I am used to doing, especially when I need something. I was there to keep my mom comfortable and it was hard to balance that responsibility with my own internal struggles to live my values system at the same time. The unrelenting challenge in confronting my privilege during my mom’s stay at NYU made it clear to me how comfortably and seamlessly I have wielded it during my mom’s many previous intersections with healthcare providers since she diagnosed with a genetic disease in 1995.
My mom is on the mend for now. And as I listen to the stories of so many women of color with chronic illness who are part of our membership, I wonder who their advocate is when they are too hot or hungry or groggy or nauseous to express what they want and need to get strong. Because in addition to the tiny macroaggressions that happen between people who are thrown together with little to do or say about it, there is institutional and structural racism that is already stacking the deck so high against them.