My beloved maternal Grandmother did not trust doctors, hospitals or The Man. She had good reason – she came of age in pre World War II Mississippi, where black women entered the hospital for medical care and left having been given a Mississippi Appendectomy…a hysterectomy that was neither medically necessary, legal or ethical. Her lack of trust may have been valid, but is also had serious ramifications. My Grandmother didn’t go to the doctor when she was ill and toward the end of her life let treatable illnesses develop into medical crisis after medical crisis for fear of what a doctor might do to her. The ramifications for medical misdeeds heaped upon black women in the South and so many other women of color in the United State and abroad are measured in stories just like my Grandmother’s.
There are those who were the “subjects” of medical experiments and “procedures”…and then there are those who altered their lives as a result of the stories they heard and the people they knew who had survived The Man’s abuse.
I grew up in a family where these things weren’t exactly spoken out loud. They were passed down from generation to generation, but not overtly. No one ever came right out and said that we shouldn’t go to a gynecologist for a Pap smear or birth control. But, through stories and tone, the message was clear – don’t trust medical care and you sure as shit shouldn’t trust government medical care.
I’ve resented this for years. I watched my Grandmother struggle at the end of her life…take pain she could have had treated and handle discomfort that could have been eased because she fear medical care more than she fear that pain or discomfort. For the longest time I thought she was being ridiculous, but time and history has proven her fears to be founded in truth – the United States government often did the devil’s work, to use Grandmother’s term, when it came to the poor and people of color. That was hard to argue against, even as I witnessed her struggling and suffering at home as the clock ran out on her remarkable life.
Later, when I went to college, I learned that the government didn’t restrict the devil’s work to Southern blacks. And I met Latinas and Native American women who also shared stories passed down from elders of wrongness and abuse, experiments and unnecessary surgeries…of a lack of trust built on a foundation of fact that had yet to be acknowledged even though the survivors walked among us – our aunts, mothers or Grandmothers, loved ones used for experiments in the name of science or “for their own good”.
When news broke that the United State of America is apologizing for deliberately injecting Guatemalans with Syphilis in the 1940s to study how penicillin works, I wasn’t surprised. Oh, I was a wee bit surprised at the apology, but not the deed…I’d been raised to believe my government had and would use people as guinea pigs for research.
I immediately though of my Grandmother…of her fear and lack of trust…of her years of untreated pain and discomfort.
There are ramifications for the evil done to others far beyond lawsuits and payments…far beyond apologies and diplomatic agreements.
For some see a doctor and think they look upon a medical professional, while others see the devil about to do The Man’s work.