So. I have often shared that I almost died due to heart issues in 2015. But, I have yet to share the full story and why it matters to me that women, especially black women, be fully aware of what they need from providers and speak up about it at all costs. I've decided that it's time to share my story.
I will start by acknowledging that healthcare disparities are a very real thing. The experience of being unheard by the person you have entrusted with your care can leave you feeling uncertain and as though maybe you are just overreacting. Yes, doctors are professionals with lots of knowledge and experience. No, they are not God. No, they do not know it all. And, yes, they are still capable of human error. Do I feel that I was unheard in 2015 when I initially sought care? To a certain extent, yes. Do I think it was due to my age and possibly even race? Maybe. I will never know for sure. But, what I do know is that if I would have taken my symptoms as nonchalantly as the provider who initially saw me did, I would be dead! And that is a fact.
On a random Thursday morning in April of 2015, I found myself having the most exhausting time getting ready for work. I literally almost passed out just trying to take a shower and get dressed. I pushed myself and was able to make it to work and through the day. I figured I just needed some rest. On the next day, Friday morning, I had an even more difficult time getting up to get going. I decided to to check my resting heart rate. It was in the low 60s. Now, I am not an athlete nor do I exercise the way I should, so I know enough to know that there is no way my heart rate should be that low. I still pushed through and, somehow, made it to work. At work, I shared with a friend that my heart rate and several symptoms were concerning me. She insisted that I use her smart watch to check my vitals. Something on the watch alerted us to a concern with my rate and a possible skipped beat. At that point, we went straight to the staff NP and had her check my vitals. She expressed a high level of concern about what she was seeing and insisted that I go and see my PCP immediately.
I left work and went straight to my PCP, where my mom met me, as I was huffing and puffing and barely making it the few steps to the doctor's front door. The provider saw me and did an in office EKG, as well as a few other tests. She obviously saw something of concern because she then brought in the lead provider of the clinic to speak to me. They asked me a few more questions about my symptoms and how I was feeling. She said "we see a little something of concern on your EKG, so we are going to get you a referral to a cardiologist. They can see you next Thursday." Again, it was Friday. I felt uneasy about waiting an entire week to see someone about this issue, but I didn't question it because they are the professionals, right? She told me I could either go home and rest or even go back to work. I chose to go home because I truly did not feel well.
That Saturday morning, I got up and attempted to get my normal routine started. I literally almost passed out just trying to make my bed. I was in full blown tears and panicking, which of course did not help. When I checked my heart rate, it was down into the 50s. I spent the day on the couch going back and forth with myself about going to the ER for a second opinion or just waiting it out until Thursday. After all, the doctor knows best. My dad called me that evening to "check in on me". He said I just fell on his heart. Okay...I hear you, God. I told him what was going on and he was ready to come and get me right then to go to the ER. I begged him to just let me see how I felt in the morning. He agreed and said that if I wasn't better by the next morning, he was coming to drag me to the hospital himself. For context, he was near the end of his own battle with stage 4 lung cancer at that time, so I didn't want him stressing over me.
By Sunday morning, I could barely move, my heart rate was into the 40s, and my dad was on my line before the sun was up. I agreed to go to the ER. I somehow drove myself and my then 9 year old across town to drop her at my mom's, then drove back across town to the ER near my house. The few feet I had to walk from my car to the ER doors were the most exhausting steps that I have ever taken in my life. My poor Daddy probably would have carried me, if he had the strength. I ended up getting the vip treatment as soon as they took my pulse....that's one vip I never want to get again! Long story short, I had a complete atrioventricular heart block, meaning the electricity in one of the chambers of my heart was going out, and my heart was failing right in front of our very eyes. I got a first class trip to the ICU. At 29 years old, I was so close to losing my life.
By Monday morning, the doctor came in and told me that my heart rate had gotten down to 32 beats a minute overnight and that they needed to perform an emergency pacemaker placement surgery to keep my heart from completely stopping. To add insult to injury, I was a few weeks pregnant with Lyla, so they couldn't put me to sleep. They could only give me heavy sedatives. I have never been through anything scarier in my life. That experience changed the entire trajectory of my life. What mattered to me changed. What I gave energy and attention to changed. Choosing to stay silent when something is of concern to me changed! If I would have stayed silent and waited for the referral visit, I would have laid on my couch and died. There's no way around it!
So, what's the point?! SPEAK!! It is a proven fact that black women's healthcare concerns are often not taken as seriously as others'. It is a proven fact that black women are considered to have a higher pain tolerance and that when we complain, it is often seen as an exaggeration. How do we begin to combat these disparities in treatment? We speak up!! We advocate for ourselves and our needs. We educate ourselves on the questions that need to be asked and how to ask them effectively. We get the second opinion. We challenge the providers to give us other options and to explain their differential diagnosis process to us. We speak up for ourselves and for one another!! If they see you as the pushy, outspoken black woman, so be it! If you have to seek out a doctor who will actually see and hear you, so be it. If you have to challenge their knowledge, so be it.
At the end of the day, you know you better than any person or book....be the expert on you and SPEAK UP! Sis, I would rather you be the difficult black woman than another statistic. I would rather you advocate for what you need than be a lesson for other women about advocating for their needs. This experience taught me to speak up. It also taught me to take care of me. It taught me the importance of self-care, which began a whole new journey for me. But, that's a blog post for a later time.....
Light and Love....