I found this story how a homeless woman died very disturbing:
Anna Brown wasn’t leaving the emergency room quietly.
She yelled from a wheelchair at St. Mary’s Health Center security personnel and Richmond Heights police officers that her legs hurt so badly she couldn’t stand.
She had already been to two other hospitals that week in September, complaining of leg pain after spraining her ankle.
This time, she refused to leave.
A police officer arrested Brown for trespassing. He wheeled her out in handcuffs after a doctor said she was healthy enough to be locked up.
She told officers she couldn’t get out of the police car, so they dragged her by her arms into the station. They left her lying on the concrete floor of a jail cell, moaning and struggling to breathe. Just 15 minutes later, a jail worker found her cold to the touch.
Officers suspected Brown was using drugs. Autopsy results showed she had no drugs in her system.
Six months later, family members still wonder how Brown’s sprained ankle led to her death in police custody, and whether anyone — including themselves — is to blame.
There seems to be no simple answer.
Actually there is a very simple answer. At some point in her care, a nurse or physician decided Anna Brown deserved to die. I don’t mean literally a health care professional wrote Anna Brown’s chart, “This patient deserves to die.” But someone decided — a nurse, a physician, or maybe it was a collective, Emergency Department judgment — that because Anna Brown was homeless, because she was black, because she was poor, because she had made multiple visits, because she was still in pain, because she advocated for herself by making a fuss, because she possibly had (undiagnosed) mental health issues, she was not entitled to proper care.
She was labelled. She was drug-seeking. She was crazy. She was a frequent flyer. And that killed her as surely as if a nurse had bolused potassium chloride.
I will tell you why I think this is true. Because Anna Brown had made repeated visits, and no one took her seriously. Because she told staff about her increasing pain, and no one believed her. Because she was unable to walk, and no one thought to ask why. All of these are enormous waving red flags for any emergency department health care professional, and neither physician nor nurse did anything about them. That’s the thing about labels: they contain their own little subjective judgements about patient care, and obscure the obvious.
If Anna Brown had been a middle-class white woman with a nice home, a job and a car, I am willing to bet — no, I know the outcome would have been different — or at least, she would not have died, gasping for air, from a pulmonary embolism on a cold jailhouse floor. There certainly would not have been any of this Kafkaesque horror of being in obvious distress with a deep vein thrombosis, about to throw a clot, and being utterly unable to get help at the very place where you might expect it.
I will let the public in on a little secret. We all do it. Each and every one of us. I don’t exclude myself. We all label patients. It is deeply embedded in the culture of health care to the point where it is an accepted practice. We all call patients drug seeking and crazy and frequent flyers and failures-to-die and failures-to-cope. We laugh at them. Hell, there are whole blogs and books devoted to the art of ridiculing patients we have already labelled. (Though when you think about it, there is nothing quite as charming as making fun of human beings who are powerless, is there?) Has any one ever thought labelling patients might cloud and impair clinical judgment? Or that it dehumanizes patients and is just plain wrong?
But the way Brown died was not the result of a few bad choices. It was the result of a myriad of institutional violences: white supremacy, the broken health care system, police brutality and the prison industrial complex, the racism and classism of the child welfare system, ableism and its intersection with racism, dehumanization and criminalization of (suspected) drug users, and the lack of housing as a human right, among others. Anna Brown did not die with the dignity we afford to human beings, but with the contempt we reserve for garbage. And a woman’s humanity is not just forgotten and cast aside with no systemic reason.
Don’t think I have much to add.
[UPDATE: A long time reader suggests instead of the word label, I should use “profile,” as in “racially profiling.” Once upon a time I might have thought the word unnecessarily inflammatory — but now I am not so sure.]
[UPDATE II: Small corrections to syntax. Hobbit not cooperating.]
- Surveilling the Death of Anna Brown (bagnewsnotes.com)