Even when removing race from the equation—you can’t and you shouldn’t, but let’s try for a moment anyway—Serena Williams’ story about having to convince her doctors that something life-threatening was potentially happening to her is absurd.
You’d think that, if medical professionals would trust any opinion on something not feeling quite right, it would be the opinion of a world-class athlete—someone whose body isn’t just a finely tuned instrument but exists as an actual industry. No one would be more in tune with how they’re feeling, what feels a little off, what a certain type of discomfort and/or pain means, and what might need a certain test.
But it still took relentless requests for Williams’ doctors and nurses to believe that she needed to be tested for blood clots and not just have her discomfort dismissed as a side effect from her pain medication. This, despite the fact that she has a history of clotting issues and literally almost died from it in 2003. And again, this is Serena fucking Williams.
Of course, we don’t know if Wiliams’ doctors would have been more likely to believe her if she were a world-class athlete who also happened to be white. Or if she just happened to be an upper-class woman who also happened to be white. Or if she just happened to be white. Again, we don’t know this.
But the distance here between what we know for certain and what I feel is minute. I feel like her doctors believed that they gave her the best treatment they could possibly provide. I feel like they definitely weren’t actively thinking that since she’s a black woman, they should be more skeptical about and dismissive of her pain.
But I know that black women receive different treatment for cancer than white women do. And that black women just generally receive poorer health care than white people and men do. And that black patients are more likely to have their pain dismissed by doctors and nurses, which subsequently means they’re less likely to receive pain medication.
And that in America today exist monuments to James Marion Sims, a man known as the father of modern gynecology. And that Sims’ medical advances were due to black female slaves, whom he experimented on without anesthesia because he either believed they didn’t experience pain or just didn’t give a shit about the pain they experienced. And that, just so you don’t dismiss this as a relic from the past, in 2016 a study revealed that medical students still believed that blacks and whites experience pain differently.
And with all of that knowledge, I feel like Williams’ doctors may have subconsciously internalized those beliefs. And I feel like they may have been less likely to give her the benefit of the doubt without even realizing it. And these feelings remind me of how I feel about my mom.
My mom’s birthday is in a couple weeks. She would have been 65 years old. On her birthday I will call my dad and my sister, as I’ve done with each of my mom’s birthdays since she died in 2013, and maybe we’ll talk about her. And maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll just talk about my daughter or maybe my sister’s grandkids or maybe Antonio Brown.
If the weather is nice, maybe we’ll all drive out to her grave in Monroeville, Pa. And we’ll stand around her plot, silently, not quite sure what’s supposed to be done or said when you’re standing over your mom’s (or your wife’s) long-dead body. We’ll place flowers on her grave and perhaps pray together. And then we’ll get back in our cars and drive back home.
She died in October of 2013 after a “yearlong” battle with lung cancer. “Yearlong” is in quotation marks because while she was diagnosed in October of 2012, I believe that she was battling for longer than a year. I believe that if the doctors had taken her more seriously and had treated the paralyzing back and chest pain she’d been suffering through since 2011 with whatever it is that doctors do to test for lung cancer instead of the Advil and Percocet and steroid injections they recommended she take, maybe it would have been found sooner.
And maybe, if it was found sooner, they would have had a better chance of treating it. And maybe if she was an upper-class white woman instead of a working-class black woman who’d just lost her house to foreclosure, she would have received different treatment. Maybe they would have found it sooner. Maybe she’d still be alive. Maybe she still would have died, but maybe they would have discovered a way to manage her pain sooner so that her life wouldn’t have been as excruciating.
Of course, I don’t know if any of these things are true. And to be fair, the nurses and doctors who cared for my mom treated her with kindness and attentiveness. But I know that they were susceptible to the same pervasive and subconscious biases that led to those racial disparities in health care—because we all are. And I feel—I believe—that they were affected by them, and this affected how my mom was treated.
That said, I can’t prove any of this. It’s just a feeling. And just a feeling ain’t enough.
Unless, of course, you’re white.