During these tumultuous times, we must seriously address something else that’s viral within hospitals — racial disparity in health care treatment. At a time when medical providers are rightly viewed as heroes for putting themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, it may be hard to address racism in healthcare. But the time may be more critical than ever, with COVID-19 disproportionately impacting minorities at four to five times the rate of Caucasians according to the CDC.
In my long career as a medical malpractice attorney, I have seen too many examples of where racism or implicit bias has caused or contributed to devastating harm or death.
Here is just one real-life, tragic example (with the patient’s name changed for privacy).
Mary Contave came to the United States from Haiti with her family when she was a teenager. She taught herself English, completed high school, and graduated from college. She worked full-time and attended further schooling at night to advance in her career in accounting. A divorced single mother, she lovingly raised her three children to understand the importance of education and hard work. She was 36 years old when she went to a local hospital to deliver her fourth baby.
After a complicated C-section delivery, Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She held him briefly before he was taken to the nursery. Then, in the post-partum care unit, things started to go badly. She started bleeding internally because her uterus failed to contract.
Although post-partum hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal deaths in this country, the doctors and nurses ignored obvious signs and symptoms. A defendant obstetrician even left the room after she observed “two gushes of vaginal bleeding.” As Mary continued to bleed, she became dehydrated and begged for water.
A nurse told her she had to wait to drink because she just had surgery, and then intentionally placed a glass of water just out of reach. As the blood depleted from her body, less went to her brain, causing her to become restless. Eventually, she became so agitated nurses could not get her calm enough to take her blood pressure. The medical records described her as “combative.”
During a deposition of one of the nurses (who is Caucasian), she testified that Mary was “feisty” and “defiant.” This nurse, who had never even met the kind-hearted Mary before that day, added that she was “even more [feisty] than she herself normally was.” Mary coded only seven minutes after she was labeled as “feisty [and] defiant.” She bled to death, never getting the desperately needed blood transfusions until it was too late.
Mary’s mother, sister, and children had been kept outside the maternity ward, as they demanded to know what was happening and why they could not see her. No one gave them any information. When Mary’s elderly mother banged on the door because she knew something wasn’t right, security guards came and forced her away from the door. Mary died without being able to see her children again. Her family was allowed in to see her only after she was dead and covered in blood.
Following a lengthy trial, we obtained a substantial verdict for her four children, who finally obtained justice and accountability for the tragic loss of their mother. On the nearly all-white jury, there was only one woman of color. After the verdict, that woman unexpectedly came up to us and said that she fought hard for our clients. She said she knows what it means to be a black person who needs health care and gets ignored – that they often just don’t get the same care and attention as white patients.
There are so many studies about racial disparity in health care. However, it gets so little attention in the real world. I have had too many other tragic cases of medical negligence caused by racial disparity where “I can’t breathe!” is simply ignored.
For example, there was the case of the Hispanic man suffering from pneumonia who entered an ER weak and unable to breathe. Instead of ordering a chest X-ray, he was immediately suspected of drug abuse and sedated on a gurney where he died. Another case involved a young black man who started to panic in the hospital when he couldn’t breathe because his tongue and throat swelled from his blood-pressure mediation. Rather than getting an anesthesiologist to open his airway, he was deemed “combative,” injected with strong anti-psychotic medication, and put in restraints as he eventually suffocated to death.
It is time to do a real analysis of racism in healthcare. When there is harm or death to a person of color resulting from medical negligence, there must be an internal review where an important question asked is: “Did racial biases contribute to the bad outcome?” People may be afraid to confront, much less admit to this possibility. But the time has come for us to address it.
As we lawyers look at our justice system to assess and root out racism, the medical system must do the same. In both situations, lives depend on it.
For more information, please contact Jeffrey Catalano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617.720.2626.
Jeff has been selected to the Best Lawyers in America directory for personal injury and product liability litigation (plaintiffs) for six consecutive years (2015-20), and has been designated as one of the Top Rated Lawyers in Medical Malpractice by The Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. He has been chosen as a New England Super Lawyer each year since 2009.
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