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Why We Fight for Patients of Color

Article by MassAFP's MaryAnn Dakkak, M.D., M.S.P.H.

"I can't breathe" was the complaint. This was her fourth admission for COVID-19. She'd been swab negative, antibody positive for some time, but that didn't stop her 60-80% throat scarring from significantly narrowing her airway, a feeling of choking compounded by her pregnancy.

"I can't breathe," George Floyd said as he died in police custody, under a policeman's knee, where he lied for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He was choking from a different disease -- not COVID-19, but structural racism that has been an integral part of our country from its very roots.

"I can't breathe," my patient said again. The nurses paged me, and I went to see her. As she choked and had stridorous breathing, I became nauseated just listening to her. My arms became tingly. I realized that I -- her physician on the day she was admitted, the day she was intubated, during her third readmission and now her fourth -- was perhaps going to pass out. I sat down next to her and helped her calm her breath, all the while being dizzy myself. I was shocked by my own physical distress in response to her difficulty breathing.

"I can't breathe," George Floyd said in that street as bystanders filmed what was happening. He called for his mother, dead two years already. And again, as I watched online, I was nauseated, I had chills.

Both my patient and George Floyd are people of color. Both are victims of structural racism, COVID-19 and excessive police force, all of which are found disproportionately in our Black communities and our communities of color.

Our Black community members are tired. They are tired of structural racism that weighs them down with higher incidences of chronic disease, adverse childhood experiences, adult traumatic events, infectious diseases such as COVID-19, pre-term labor and higher-risk pregnancies, and direct police and community violence against them. Our communities of color are tired of shouldering weight after weight of disparity and inequity.

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