Where’s Your Cape?

The other day, someone told me I wasn’t “superwoman.” I don’t think I know how to take that. My intent isn’t to be, but somehow this comment rubbed me the wrong way. I toggled and toggled over it – trying to figure out what was the intent of that phrase – or what I have done or am doing to give the allusion that I am a cape crusader.
I guess what trips me up is that what I see as resiliency may be misconstrued as something entirely different. If we rely on the definition noted by Merriam-Webster, resilience is defined as:

1: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

As I began to unpack this definition and integrate it within my experiences, my DNA, my upbringing, the communities I have been raised in – all of these attributes becoming interwoven and tightly bound – resulting in the cape that others may see.
One strand of thread that popped in my mind was an experience I had in 5th grade. I was a student a E. Morris Cox Elementary School in East Oakland, and my teacher was Mrs. Cheney. She was from Germany, and had an extremely strict structure to her teaching. But this structure was not strict with the overt intent to make us resilient and excel beyond our fullest potential – to me, the outcome of this environment was the polar opposite.
I can remember a particular incident so vividly. I had turned in my math homework that I had completed with care the night before. It was done on tan-colored recycled paper that was so thin, that if you erased too much or too hard, and fuzzy film would develop before the thin layer underneath ripped. In an effort to preserve this delicate sheet, I conducted my work on a piece of scratch paper, and proceeded to double and triple check my work before I transferred it on to that tan sheet of paper. With all this care, I neglected to notice that I didn’t not wipe off the part of the dinner table where I conducted my work very well. This resulted in three small stains – I didn’t think Mrs. Cheney would notice or even care. But she did. And she let the whole class know. Upon gathering the classes attention – she decided to make an example of what “disgusting work” looks like. She held it up and told my classmates, “Look at this. What a disgusting mess. I won’t even grade anything that looks like this.” After this declaration, she ripped my sheet up to pieces and handed back to me. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I was broken.
I was at a complete loss as to what to say and do. My stomach was in knots, my head hurt, and I wanted to go home. When the bell rang at the end of the day, I think I was the first kid out of the school. My mom came to pick me up, and I jumped in the front seat without saying a word. In her usual, comforting way, my mom asked, “How was your day, baby?” Silence. All the way home. When we got in the house, she asked, “What happened today? Did someone bother you?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the crumpled, torn pieces of the tan-colored paper, and handed to her before bursting into tears. Needless to say that my mom wasn’t happy about this in the least bit. Ok, that previous sentence was a total understatement – my moms was HOT! And when my grandmother found out about it, the anger boiled over. When things cooled to a manageable level, my mom called our principal, Dr. Cooke, and requested a meeting. She told him what Mrs. Cheney had done, and he was livid. The next morning, my mom, granny, and I visited with Dr. Cooke. I told him first had what happened. Shortly after, he requested that Mrs. Cheney come to the office. She tried to deny that the incident happened that way – that I had tried to submit some extremely messy homework, and when she didn’t accept it, I got mad and ripped in frustration. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I turned in disgusting work. I was a liar.
Needless to say, Dr. Cooke didn’t believe her and she was reprimanded.
In looking back – I could have easily bought into the picture that Mrs. Cheney tried to paint me in. But being raised by two of the most resilient women that I know, that wasn’t even a factor. So am I bitter about what Mrs. Cheney did? No. But I do thank her for having a hand in crafting the cape that freely flows in the wind behind me.

Tales from the Other Side

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Me and mom sharing quiet moment during her hospital stay. Photo credit: Latasha Brown

The last two weeks of February 2013 was been filled with pain, worry, anger, exhaustion, and tears. But I am grateful to God that we made it through and that my mother is doing much better and is now home. I cannot go into detail about what happened, but I can tell you that the situation that we have gone through is nothing new – especially for marginalized communities.

There are countless accounts of folks that have been misinformed, misdiagnosed, uninformed, undiagnosed, mistreated, etc. when it comes to their health care. As I journeyed through this experience with my family – which involved a host of emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc. – I couldn’t help but think about how this experience has shaped and refocused my view of health care delivery as public health provider. As the Affordable Health Care Act (side note: can we PLEASE stop calling it “Obamacare”?) continues to progress, I hope and pray that the odd notion of cultural humility is integrated in this process. From our family’s recent experience, I cannot tell you how important that would be.

I am a firm believer that a cure can only be as great as the method in which it is delivered. So, if better health care is delivered through people who have no humility, compassion, or empathy for the clients and colleagues, in the words of my girl Dr. LeConté Dill, the medical industrial complex will persist. If you are not able to understand what I am saying, maybe this analogy will help. The current structure is the equivalent to the cure for cancer being delivered through a rusty needle. Who would take that risk? It is pretty much guaranteed that if you do take that chance, you will be left with a host of other illnesses and issues that you didn’t have before that option was taken.

So after going through this experience with my mom, here are some recommendations that I have for health care providers:

  • Have some humility! During this time, I witnessed countless instances of staff not only being dismissive and rude to some patients, but some would treat their staff in the same fashion. To those that exhibited such behavior: How would it feel if the shoe was on the other foot? If someone spoke to you as if you were lesser than a human being? Or refused to acknowledge your existence? Or took credit for something that you did? Behavior like this should not be tolerated, rewarded, or supported.
  • Think about what it would be like on the other side: What if you or your loved one were ill? How would you want to be treated? Would you want your provider to ignore your questions or concerns?
  • Admit when you are wrong and work to correct it. It should go without explanation that if you do not know the answer, you should not make up one. Or if you don’t know how to do something, you should not make up a remedy. It just makes things so, so much worse. Not only will you compromise the person you are “helping,” but it will also land you in a mess of trouble. Just don’t do it. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know, but I will find out.” It is also important to do exactly that – find out!

To consumers:

  • Ask questions: The more questions that you ask, the more information you will receive. This will help you be a better advocate for yourself and your loved ones.
  • Know your health history, and own it: This “out of sight, out of mind mentality” has to stop. It only compromises the health and well being of yourself and your loved ones.
  • Have some humility! There is the saying, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” I have empathy for the pain and discomfort that some patients experienced, but that does not give these same patients the right to yell commands to a nurse who is doing their best to help you. Saying please and thank you really is not that hard.

These may seem like pretty basic recommendations, but they could be instrumental in sparing so many people from so much heartache and pain. As my mother continues to recover (she is making wonderful progress – thank God!) there is still more that I think about in regards to the health care industry, and my role as not only a public health practitioner, but a consumer as well. Like, is what I’m doing even making a difference? How and where can I do more? The struggle continues – so I better dig in my heels and not waver. A change has gotta come.