Serena Williams: Bias Against Black Pain


Being one of the best tennis players in the world as well as arguably one of the best athletes in the world, Serena Williams displays incredible talent, strength and discipline. Her inspiration transcends the world of sports. Even in pregnancy, during and after childbirth, Williams had to beat some opposition to ensure her daughter, Alexis Olympia, and she came out as champions. Displays of good health and strength in athleticism do not equate to being void of illness. Williams is susceptible to blood clots and so she takes anticoagulants (blood thinners) daily to prevent their onset. This was affected in the days following the birth of her daughter.

Despite having a relatively smooth pregnancy, during contractions the heart rate of her baby rapidly decreased and so Williams had to undergo an emergency C-section. Post operation, Williams was required to cease taking anticoagulants to allow for proper healing of her surgical scar. Shortly after ceasing medication, whilst recovering from surgery she experienced shortness of breath. Williams sought medical assistance and requested a CT scan and heparin being astutely knowledgeable about her body in conjunction with her condition. The medical staff initially disregarded her concerns and performed an ultrasound which gave results that were not indicative of a blood clot. If not for Williams demanding for the CT scan in spite of this, the doctors would not have found that she did in fact have several small pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lungs) and start her on a course of heparin to thin her blood. Serena Williams could have died due to medical professionals diminishing the severity of her complaints of chest pain.

It does not stop here. An entire ordeal ensued. Firstly, due to the coughing fit caused by the blood clots in her lungs, her C-section wound reopened so the chance of her contracting an infection was increased and required the restitching of her wound. Williams also had to undergo surgery to correct the lung clot and was found to have a haematoma (large blood clot in the tissue) which required further surgery for a filter to be placed in her vein to prevent blood clots from the haematoma dislodging and entering her lungs. These events left Serena Williams too weak to care for and bond with her newborn daughter which impacted her ability to enjoy the initial weeks of motherhood.

Unfortunately, the experience of Serena Williams is a symptom of a wider problem in healthcare. Black pain is not taken as seriously as white pain and this is responsible for the disproportionate number of black patient deaths, especially black women. In fact, black women in the United States are more than three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women. There have been studies dating as far back as the 1990s which have expressed that black patients receive less pain management due to subconscious biases medical staff have against black people (the extreme being the patient is a drug addict and is lying about their pain to get "a quick fix") and also professionals believing in fallacies such as black people having higher pain thresholds or less sensitive nerve endings than white people.

I can only imagine how many black women who are not as resilient as Serena Williams in having their concerns addressed and so are silenced by their doctors and ultimately die by having their pain ignored. Not to talk of the masses of women who do not have access to top-tier medical care and the best medical insurance money can buy. Failure to address pain adequately creates an atmosphere in which people will not be honest about their pain. This is too much of a cost in medical practice. The sooner an issue is addressed the more likely it is that it has not reached severity. Any interventions carried out at this point are often cheaper overall (eg lower doses used or shorter treament course) and more effective, as they prevent the compounding of symptoms and complications arising. In other words: the earlier we address pain, the easier it is to treat.

Increasing the number of black doctors alone will not solve the bias against black pain. We need to ensure all doctors of all races and backgrounds are taught that as all people are created equal, so is their experience of pain. Unlearning subconscious biases against people of colour need to take place at all levels: medical schools, hospitals, clinics, GP practices and more. Creating a hospital environment which is safe for all people of all races includes making a space which is conducive for people of colour and especially black people to openly speak up about their symptoms without fear or expectation of their experience being undermined or overlooked.

For the source used to inform this post, click here

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