Kim in the hospital, visited by her friends and boyfriend, in 2019.
It was Christmas morning 2019 and I wasn’t feeling well. I was vacationing with my parents in Oklahoma and had complained of breathlessness and mild chest pain all week. I chalked it up in fear. But when I got to the airport four days later, I knew something was terribly wrong …
My shortness of breath turned to wheezing after walking just a few meters through the airport. I shuffled the rest of the way to my gate. I landed in New York that night and went straight to the emergency room. Still convinced it was just fear, I added it to the list of bizarre symptoms I had gathered over the years. I never stayed in the hospital for anything. Even my parents didn’t have any hospital visits, so the idea that something was wrong with my body was unthinkable. I was finally seen by someone around 1am. The nurse was strict but very caring. “Right, so we did a blood test and you either have a heart attack or you have blood clots.” My mind stopped. WHAT?? I don’t have a blood clot! I just need a Xanax, I thought. But after another test it was confirmed that I had a blood clot in one of my lungs, which explained the heavy breathing.
The nurse started asking questions that might indicate the cause:
“Did you fly on a plane recently?”
“Are you on the pill?”
“OK. You have to stop taking the pill right now. You are really young and since you don’t smoke I’ll make a wild guess and say it’s either the plane or the pill.”
I was incredulous. How could that be? I needed a CT scan to see the size of the blood clots, and as I followed the doctor past rows of hospital beds into the next room, I doubled up again and couldn’t breathe. She put her hand on my back and said, “This is worse than I thought.” I lay on the hard plastic tray with tears on my face as warm dye filled my veins and illuminated the blood clots in my lungs.
An hour later, the warm and happy CT technician came in and announced, “Wow, you’re a high-flyer! You actually have two blood clots – one in each lung. We call this a bilateral pulmonary embolism. “The lumps were huge and put a strain on my heart. An EKG technician would come by in the morning to check the blood flow. My mind wavered, and when they took me to the critical area of the emergency room with a drop of heparin, I tearfully called my parents and wrote to my best friend Leslie, a nurse who made sure I stood up for myself. I fell asleep around 7 a.m. That should not happen.
The next five days were a blur as I was taken to another hospital that was better equipped to handle my case. A team of three young doctors visited me every day to check on my progress. “And you don’t smoke?” the first doctor asked, scribbling a note. “No,” I replied for the billionth time. “But you are so young. It’s strange that you would have blood clots at this age. Anyway, you should be out of here by New Years Eve! “The smiling doctor left the room and winked at me while the other two doctors fell back. “Actually …” they began as soon as the first doctor left the room, “Your numbers are still very high and you probably won’t get out until New Years Eve. We want to keep you as long as possible to make sure You are absolutely sure. “
I was frustrated at the time. I just wanted to forget those traumatic last days and celebrate the new year with my boyfriend. But I should have realized that the two doctors who stayed in the room were looking for me. The upbeat doctor who gave me a sunny diagnosis was a white man, and the other two doctors were black women. My doctor and nurses in the first hospital were black women and one Asian woman. They all had my back and at the time I hadn’t realized how lucky I was. I thought of lawyer and model Mama Cax, who had died of pulmonary embolism just a week before my emergency room visit, and Serena Williams, who had to request more than once to get a CT scan for a pulmonary embolism, after the nurses refused to listen to them.
I went to the doctor and assumed that anyone assigned to me would treat me fairly for granted.
According to a 2016 study, 50 percent of medical students and local residents believed that black people couldn’t experience pain the way whites did because they had thicker skin or because their nerves weren’t working the same way. Black people are also 30 to 60 percent more likely than whites to develop a pulmonary embolism. I left the hospital later that week knowing that I had been examined ten times for these two doctors before being cleared to leave.
Fifteen months later, I’m almost on the other side. After taking blood thinners for a year, I have no more blood clots and I see doctors to confirm the cause. I still have a few who allay my concerns and at first I thought, well, they are the experts. Maybe I should just listen to them. But nobody knows my own body like me and I will keep going until I find the right doctors to hear me. I never forget how happy I am to be alive, even when dealing with doctors who may have thought I suffered less than me or I made it up. I do it for the long healthy life I will have and life will be cut short because they were ignored.
PS How I feel now as a black woman and become anti-racist.
(Photo by Kim Rhodes / Instagram.)