Melselesh’s Story: Racism in Medicine.

February 9, 2021

My friend Meselesh and I lived in the same apartment block. We had met the day we moved in, and since then, had been in and out of each other’s apartments daily. We traded babysitting, shared recipes, and our families often had meals together. Our children were inseparable, her two girls happily playing with my one.

Meselesh and her husband, Richard, were thrilled when she became pregnant. The two girls, Hayat and Jasmin, were Meselesh’s children – her previous husband had died in a plane crash – so this would be their first child together.

When the time came for the birth, all went well, and Meselesh came home with a baby boy. When I saw her the next day, however, she was worried. Her baby was not eating. She was providing plenty of milk, and he was clearly hungry, but when he started to suck, he gagged and regurgitated and turned away. This had happened throughout the night, and she wanted to take him back to the hospital to see a doctor.

Since Richard was at work, I drove her to the emergency room. After a brief visit, she came to the waiting room with a doctor who was busy reassuring her that nothing was wrong. “You are very lucky, Mrs. Lane,” I recall his saying. “Most of the new mothers we see are worrying because they cannot provide enough milk. You just wait and see. Your baby will be fine.”

We heard much the same story from the doctor on duty the next day, when after another 24 hours of watching her hungry baby turn away from the breast, we returned to the hospital.

Day three was a different story. The medical staff quickly realized they saw a very distressed infant and rushed him off to intensive care. There he stayed for two days, till he died, of pneumonia. His milk had been going into his lungs rather than his stomach, a fact that a simple examination would have revealed. Why that wasn’t done was never explained, probably for legal reasons.

The doctors had failed to recognize that Meselesh was an experienced mother who had successfully breastfed two children. Her explanations of the baby’s behavior were ignored, and they repeatedly told her there was no reason to worry. Many a mother can identify with that disregard. But Meselesh was telling them something more. She pointed to her son’s skin color as evidence of his distress.

Just as a white-skinned child is paler when sick, so too was this baby. But that didn’t register with those who only saw “black,” not shades of black, and especially not “grey” as the skin color of a sick child. So, for two days, her insistence that there was something seriously wrong was rejected by those who could not recognize the signs of a sick black child.

This is but one example of what happens to people of color, daily, in all walks of life. It is why ‘systemic racism’ is a disease we must all work on, searching for a cure that is embedded deep in our institutions and in our daily habits. It is hard work, but it is essential.

Written by Sheila Spear, in fond remembrance of Meselesh, and with love to Jasmin, who approved my telling this story.

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