When I was seven years old, I had my first MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging – a medical imaging machine that generates internal images of the body. The tubular machine was quite large in comparison to my petite body. I can still remember how scared I was as they placed headphones twice the size of my head over my ears and pushed me back into the small cylinder. Or how the nurse called the IV that shot cold, contrast dye throughout my bloodstream a “butterfly clip” to ease the nerves. The MRI was ordered to examine my neck and upper spine because I was experiencing a lot of unusual pain there for a child that young. What my family and I didn’t expect was to be in that room for two more hours as they caught a glimpse of something concerning in my lower back.
And so began the painstakingly long process of determining whether or not a mass found next to my spine was a tumor or cancerous. I can’t imagine what these doctors’ visits were like for my parents, as they waited in a room at the oncology ward of the pediatric hospital after weeks of worrying their young child had cancer. Fretting about the emotional toll it would take on them and their older daughter, how it would impact my life that had just barely begun, and if they would ever be able to financially recover from the medical bills in that kind of treatment. I am beyond grateful every day that the doctor walked in and said the tumor was benign and a clump of nerve cells lodged next to my spine. While this has resulted in challenges like scoliosis and annual MRIs, we would have all led a very different life if this wasn’t the outcome.
When I was younger, I accepted this as what my life looked like. While I didn’t understand all the details, I knew I had to be more careful than kids my age and I couldn’t do everything they were or that I wanted. I knew that my familiarity with an MRI machine wasn’t common, but this didn’t deter me. But now, in hindsight, I realize just how devastating this diagnosis could have been to members of a different socioeconomic class or people without access to quality health insurance. If it had been cancer, even my middle-class parents who had the educational tools to save their money and start steady careers would have never been able to give me the childhood that I had. They would’ve been in medical debt for their entire lives. And the MRIs alone were expensive, but they were always able to provide this for me without letting on the financial tolls.
According to the US Census from 2020, the poverty rate in the US was 11.4 percent. The pandemic marked the first incline in poverty after five consecutive years of this level decreasing. Another study done by the Statista Research Department found that more than 30 million people in the United States were without any form of health insurance. The costs of cancer treatments continue to go up into levels that most Americans can’t afford, especially when the cost from going to the hospital alone is too much for a lot of working-class families. And these disparities do not stop solely with class. The intersection of race and class highlights how racial divides further increase medical accessibility issues among minority communities.
For Black families, the average cost for annual health care is almost 20 percent of their average household income. There are a plethora of disproportionate illnesses and death rates for the Black community when compared to their white counterparts, stemming from the ways in which segregation and racist ideologies physically separated and discriminated against these communities, resulting in unequal access to hospitals in minority areas. If cancer treatment costs are astronomically high for the average white person in America, this health care is even more financially exhausting for families of color. These costs impact survival from these health issues like cancer, and the American Cancer Society found that Black people have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial/ethnic group for most cancers in the U.S. Many of these patients even face racial discrimination at appointments with their health care providers. A reckoning with the ways Black communities have been oppressed systemically, like with health care, must be had in order for any progression past the ways the impoverished are denigrated in the U.S to take place.
Universal health care is in desperate need in our country. No family should have to compromise their personal health or the well-being of their child over being able to afford a place to sleep, food to eat, or a brighter future for their progeny. The stress of worrying about your child’s health is already more than enough to bear, so families should not have to also worry that they cannot afford the care that they need, or that they could face graver illness than others based on racial discrimination. What must be done in order to start aiding this issue is a reconsideration of the privatization of health care. In our country, it is treated as a commodity instead of a necessary social service to citizens. Following the World Health Organizations advice, resolutions, and plans for Universal Health Care also presents a way to begin solving this problem of health care costs and discrimination. These needs look different globally, but the key elements of community-based health services, disease prevention, and immunization form the basic foundation necessary to build universal care upon. This pandemic has proven an extreme lack in these tools for even a first-world country like the U.S. Access to health care is a basic human right, and one that would substantially improve the hardships for many families dealing with illness. I am so grateful for the care I received as a child and realize how lucky I am that the cost was not as high as it could have been. The trauma of going through health scares and crises is a heavy burden that should not be increased by financial worries but rather alleviated by affordable health care instead.
- Afflictions of American Health Care – by Eliana Teel - April 3, 2022