Health care was a luxury for me growing up. I didn’t have a primary care physician. I rarely had a wellness exam. Dentist appointments were far and few between. But stories like these aren’t rare for children in Mississippi and much of America.
According the Urban Institute, in 2017 49.2 percent of uninsured Americans live in the South. That percentage increased from 46.5 in 2015. In Mississippi alone, 26.9 percent of children live in poverty. Only 42.9 out of every 100,000 Mississippian go to the dentist regularly, and 108.6 out of every 100,000 have a primary care physician. Again my story of limited health care isn’t rare, but what is is that I survived.
When I was 18, I almost died from a tooth abscess. At least, that what the dentist told me when she saw my x-ray and was surprised that I was somehow alive. In addition to be a freshman in college and battling anxiety and depression, I couldn’t eat, lost several pounds, and was dying from an infection in my gums. I would’ve died too if I was a few months older and aged out of Medicaid or if my sister wasn’t in the hospital for health issues and the administration there didn’t help my parents sign us up for Medicaid. I got lucky, but there are so many who don’t.
The current governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, aka The Worst, lied in his 2015 reelection campaign that if in 2017, the affordable care act was still around, he would expand Medicaid to help uninsured Mississippians get quality care. He will be replaced this November, and Mississippi still doesn’t have Medicaid expansion.
The man looking to take his spot, current lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, also The Worst, has refused to expand Medicaid. He said, “I do not think it’s good public policy to put 300,000 more Mississippians on government health care.” My guess is that Reeves believes it’s better for poor people to die than for the government to invest money in their health.
For me, universal healthcare is more than a liberal buzzword; it’s the difference between life and death. It means a chance for children in poverty to grow up and live a full and healthy life. Right now, I’m facing a $15,000 bill if I want to fix my teeth from the damage caused by not having access to affordable dental care as a child. Going $15,000 in debt means I have a chance of keeping the rest of my teeth and not aging prematurely. Being able to properly chew food could also help me maintain a healthy weight, but again that costs $15,000 I don’t have. I also don’t want other people to face a big healthcare bill from growing up in poverty.
To do that, we not only need more access to health care, we need doctors to be more understanding of those us who are just now getting access. When I was 19, I worked under a doctor at my local medical clinic with a campaign called “Together on Diabetes.” In addition to spreading information and access for how to prevent or treat diabetes, the nurses I worked with worked to destigmatize the doctor’s office. This meant not being condescending to people struggling to eat better or work out. It also meant paying house visits to people or setting up free monthly clinics after working hours if that’s what it took to help others. Whatever it took to lessen the gap and help others, health professionals did this.
Since leaving Mississippi, I’ve noticed that health professionals have been less hospitable. When I started working full time, I had health care for the first time in four years. The first thing I did was go to the doctor. I cried after my first dentist appointment because after telling her about my near-death experience, being uninsured for years, and trying to see sliding-scale dentists but being met with a 6+ month wait, she told me I should’ve already had all of these things done to my teeth.
It was my fault for not having money, access, or health insurance to fix my mouth. My fault that I almost died. My fault that care was distant. There was a complete lack of compassion for the struggle I went through and how hard it was for me to be able to afford to walk into a doctor’s office. I now have anxiety going into the dentist office not because of the procedures but because I fear they’ll shame me for growing up poor.
Although I’ve had better luck at the eye doctor and Planned Parenthood, the new physician I went to last month shamed me for my weight. As soon as she walked in and looked at me, she commented on my round face. As she squeezed my stomach, she told me to lay off the carbs, and she yelled three times in the office, even making me walk back in when my visit was over for me to step on the scale. She assumed I was pre-diabetic and had high cholesterol. I couldn’t even tell her what my symptoms were because I was too ashamed of her calling me fat. I cried in the car after that visit.
When I got my labs back, she was surprised to find they were normal. My cholesterol and glucose were much lower than she assumed they were because I had been working on eating better due to the advice of my last physician. As a result of eating healthier types of food and not skipping meals, my metabolic numbers were lower than the year before, but I had gained weight. She would’ve known that if she didn’t silence me by constantly calling me fat.
Although I informed her that I had an anxiety disorder, she continually commented on my weight when a good doctor would know that people with anxiety are more likely to develop eating disorders. This combined with the fact that I’m metabolically healthy, shows that I’m not losing weight to be healthy, I’m already healthy; I’m losing weight to make others more comfortable.
The goal should not only be more access to health care and more chances to live, but to encourage patients to use that healthcare and to make the office a safe space. This comes with more compassionate doctors. I’m not saying enable patients to be unhealthy, but a doctor’s job is to make someone a healthier version of themselves. Shame prevents us from doing that.