Whenever people think about Black History Month, the first thing that comes to mind is slavery. And, that's quite valid. Slaves had to work for no pay, become the literal property of their "superior" masters, and were bought and sold, separated from their families, treated sometimes worse than animals. But you see, that's just the half of it. Black History Month, more than anything, is unveiling and understanding the lost pieces of injustice and abuse, and listening to the forgotten stories of those victims whose cries for help were not heard.
J Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, was one prime example. Have you ever noticed that when a lot of people became famous for discovering something, inventing something, contributing something of value to the world, it comes at some terrible cost to someone else? Well, this kind of goes like that. You see, Dr. Sims was credited with developing the first surgical technique to repair a vesico-vaginal fistula, a common complication of childbirth in the 19th century. Oh yes, how wonderful women felt when they could safely undergo a procedure, with anesthesia, that fixed this issue. White women, that is. As for black women? Well, they were the subjects of his very painful, very nonconsensual human trial to perfect the technique.
His first "patient" was 18-year old slave Lucy, who endured an hour-long surgery, screaming and crying in pain as Sims recorded in his own notes. She later contracted blood poisoning from the sponge used to drain urine away from the bladder, and it took her 2-3 months to fully recover. Next up, 17-year old slavewoman Anarcha, who had already suffered a traumatic labor and delivery. And what did he do? He performed 30 operations on her, in the span of 4 years, to finally perfect his fistula surgeries. Without anesthesia, of course, because of the very false belief that "Black people can't feel pain." Really, then why was Lucy screaming for an entire hour? Fair question, I'd say.
Sims moved to New York, and continues his trailblazing, excruciating, and deeply flawed practices, this time on African-American children. And every time a patient died, every time something went wrong it would always be the midwife's fault, or the mother's.
Injustice and indifference to African-American health pervaded in the 20th century, with the Tuskegee study. In 1932, the Public Health Service began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for blacks. A good motive, I'd say. But poorly executed. You see the study initially involved 600 black men: 399 with syphilis, 201 without it. But they weren't informed about anything. All they were told was "You have bad blood (a common term for many bacterial illnesses). We're going to treat you for it indefinitely." In exchange, the men received free meals and medical exams.
The study was only supposed to be for 6 months, but actually went on for 40 years. Yeah, that's right. And when was an actual treatment for syphilis discovered? 1943. When evidence of this study was finally unearthed by the Associated Press, they found out that there was no evidence that researchers offered the men any adequate treatment, or even the option to quit.
These are just a few examples of how black people have been taken advantage of, used, and manipulated for a bigger purpose. Even now, false stereotypes exist about African-Americans. According to a 2016 study of medical students at the University of Virginia, 73% endorsed one of the false beliefs about African-Americans having lower pain tolerance. Keep in mind, this was a mere 5 years ago.
So how do we proceed? How do we go from here? In my opinion, the problem is that things always move too fast. I know, I sound like a retired person living on a tropical island. But its true. We need to take the time to not only talk and act, but understand our exact reasoning for doing so. If we carefully introspect and effectively communicate with others, we can and we will do better in terms of healthcare disparity.