Healthcare Through Angela’s Eyes
(Part 2 of 2)
Wasn’t Blind, But Now I See!
After a local Bishop learned about the condition of Angela’s eyes, he contacted her mother asking that she bring Angela over to his church for prayer. With a hopeful heart, Margie agreed, and brought Angela to the very next service.
Before the benediction, the preacher asked Angela to join him at the front of the sanctuary as attendees stood by anxiously awaiting the miracle, which they were certain was imminent.
As Angela held on to the sides of each pew, making her way to the front of the church, she could hear gradual whispers randomly bursting into the air on the right and left of the room.
“In ya mighty name, Lord,” muttered one.
“Heal,” cried out another.
“Satan, you’s a lying wonder tonight,” insisted the last person, drawing in closer to her face.
Angela had grown quite accustomed to these religious chants, as well as the public attention that accompanied her worsening medical condition, but she was becoming emotionally fatigued by the increasing trauma she was facing as a young teen.
She wanted desperately for this to be the moment it would finally all be over.
As she approached the altar, Angela began to cry as the entire congregation was locked in a trance of divine expectation, stretching their hands forward, each passionately charging up the room by mumbling their own prayer on her behalf.
Although Angela was rapidly losing her sight, she was still partially sighted, which would have been a helpful piece of information for the Bishop to have (prior to setting up the room’s expectation).
Once the preacher had finished his fiery appeal of faith, he removed his oily hands from around Angela’s jaws. His confident smile confirmed the miracle that had just taken place.
Bishop: “Open your eyes, girl!”
Angela started to blink her tear-filled eyes.
Bishop: “Do you see that woman sitting over there wearing that white hat?”
Angela: “Yes, Sir…”
Bishop: “Then go on over there and touch it!”
Angela wanted desperately to tell the preacher she could see the image of the woman’s hat even prior to the prayer (because she was not completely blind), but the congregation’s energy was so incredibly high and hopeful that she feared disappointing them.
She was left with the choice of creating an embarrassing and awkward moment for everyone (including her mother) or simply following the preacher’s directive.
Angela reluctantly took one step at a time over to the elderly woman seated in the first row—and slowly moved her finger toward the white hat.
The moment Angela’s finger made its contact, the entire church exploded into a frenzy.
The Hammond organ screeched a riff at its highest pitch, bodies bounced about the building, and tambourines synced up into a thunderous tribal rhythm.
The congregation’s beliefs were confirmed; prayer had done, in an instant, what doctors and medicine could not be trusted to accomplish after years of specialized treatment.
After the audience calmed down, the elderly woman in the white hat rang out in a rendition of, “God Specializes,” as the congregation followed her with the next lyric—“in things that seem impossible…”
The crowd gathered around Angela—hugging her—crying…hands lifted.
Everyone joyously and sincerely celebrated the miraculous restoration of Angela’s eyesight.
Everyone—except Angela…and soon thereafter, Margie.
Thurman’s Love Theory: Logic over Theology
Angela’s father, Thurman, is the grandson of a slave, and the son of a Northern Louisiana sharecropper. Like many African Americans born in the 1940’s, he was taught the safety of compliance and always relied on his doctors’ education and insight with little or no question.
There are some who believe that this could be part of the reason why recruitment for the Tuskegee experiment was successful.
In the inverse, there are now many African Americans who refuse to rely on scientific data (even when confirmed as valid by multiple sources across disciplines, geographies, and people groups) as the result of multi-generational medical mistrust.
During the battle for Angela’s eyesight, her father, Thurman, was practical, supportive and much less superstitious than her mother’s side of the family. He held a calm resistance to religious dogma and was generally more skeptical of miracle revivals, blessed oil and torn up pieces of fabric from the local preacher’s healing cloth as a remedy for illness.
As much as Thurman didn’t want his daughter to lose her sight, he understood that it was a natural occurrence—a human factor she was simply living through. He was determined to do all he could to make her life easier while coping with these difficulties.
Angela: “Things were getting darker—and it got to the point where I couldn’t see the words on the page anymore while I was in class. I remember my mom and dad taking turns reading my books to me—one person would drive and the other would read while on the way to school in the mornings.”
Angela: “Yes; and something special my dad would do is find yellow paper, take a dark marker and trace the lines on it so that I could see them better. Darker pins, calculators with larger numbers, anything I could use that would help me see. To this day, he is still very committed to getting me the tools and resources I need to empower me despite my disability.”
Pristine Meets Perfunctory
In a world before ADA and IDEA policies, Angela went from being a straight-A student in gifted and talented classes to flunking them all—warehoused alongside other students with disabilities who shared one broad, largely ineffective curriculum.
Angela: “When I was able to go to school, the teachers didn’t understand why I could see better some days than others; they felt that I was malingering. Because of that feeling, they didn’t respond well to my family’s request for accommodations. I was accused of attention-seeking.”
Nothing was helping.
Angela was in a bad situation—and her mother knew it.
Finally, Margie asked Angela’s doctor to meet with the school to better explain her daughter’s condition as well as her needs. He did, and against Angela’s will, an agreement was reached.
Angela would have to receive her education on a full-time basis—150 miles away from her mom and dad.
Angela: “I was in crisis. I felt what I needed most was my family. What my mom and dad thought I needed the most was my education and to learn important life skills as a blind woman.
Mockingbird: They’d accepted your blindness.
Resetting to Reimagine
Mockingbird: Do you remember the moment your parents left you in Austin at the School for the Blind?
Angela: “I remember them yelling bye and waving. I was devastated. If I could’ve sank into the lawn that day, I would’ve. I cried every day for six weeks. I was in bad shape.”
Mockingbird: How many years did you spend there?
Angela: “Four years—in a dorm.”
Angela’s father later admitted that although they couldn’t let her know at the time, he and her mother both cried after dropping her off that evening—the entire way back to Houston.
Captive in Egypt: Crossing Denial River
Angela: “I didn’t wanna use a cane, I didn’t wanna learn brail or any of the other blind skills. I’d started adopting my mother’s side of the family’s religious views that I would get my sight back. I started to feel like the entire experience at the School for the Blind was a waste of my time.”
Mockingbird: Had you given up confidence in the viability of medical treatment at that point?
Angela: “The culture was split. The belief was that God could heal you through any means; medical science or my faith. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted healing any way I could get it.”
During another healing service, Angela recalled a preacher leading her around a sanctuary seven times while repeatedly blowing cheeks full of air into her eyes; the congregants sang and clapped feverishly.
The expectation was that the seventh lap around the church would cause her vision to be instantly restored—parallel to the walls of Jericho falling down (as the story is written in the King James version of the Bible).
Mockingbird: What happened after the seventh lap around?
Angela: “The preacher told me I didn’t have enough faith—so I was devastated and went back home still blind…and working on building up my faith.”
Mockingbird: How long did it take you to stop blaming yourself for these failed attempts at restoring your eyesight during these healing services?
Angela: “It took me about 10 years to stop blaming myself for not having enough faith to be healed. I decided to accept my condition as a part of my life. It was what I needed to be able to live despite the darkness—and that’s when I began to heal.”
Mockingbird: It seems like that’s what you finally saw—that you couldn’t see before.
Blind Blame Game
Although many of her mother’s family members suffered from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and mental health conditions, they believed that sickness was evil, and came from the devil. They sincerely believed that it was God’s plan for them to be healthy and whole.
At one point, Angela’s family’s pastor took it upon himself to pull her parents aside and encourage them to repent of their sins so that Angela could be healed of her blindness.
The church leader was convinced that poor health conditions were passed down to children as a direct result of sins committed by their mother and father. He went even further to cite a scriptural reference to support his views.
Thurman listened politely and then simply dismissed these ideas as nonsense, while Margie considered their potential validity.
Becoming Mama’s Eyes
After the School for the Blind came college. Upon college graduation, Angela moved back to Houston to work as an educator. One night after meeting up with a friend for dinner, she decided to catch a ride back home with her mother.
Five minutes after entering the freeway, Angela began to feel the car drifting, but she knew it wasn’t time for an exit. Soon, it became apparent that they were swerving between lanes.
Horns started blowing, and Angela could feel the pressure from vehicles swooshing by at high speeds, signaling that the car she was in was slowing down—significantly.
Angela: “I kept saying, ‘what’s going on Mama?’ All I heard in response was her moaning. At that point, I figured she must have been having some kind of medical emergency. I pulled out my phone and called 911. I couldn’t see to tell them where we were! Fourteen minutes into the phone call, my phone died.
There I was, a blind, Black woman, on Interstate 10 (one of the busiest freeways in the country), getting out of the vehicle at midnight, screaming, hollering and waving my hands—hoping for someone to stop to help us.”
Mockingbird: How did you feel in that moment?
Angela: “Beyond horrified. I couldn’t even hear my own voice because of the roaring of the traffic, but I knew I had to do what I had to do.”
Finally, a passerby stopped, called authorities again, and waited until rescue teams were able to pinpoint their location and arrive on the scene.
Angela’s mother was taken to the hospital where it was discovered that she had suffered a massive stroke.
Dr. Déjà vu
Margie remained in the hospital’s care for several months before it was time to come home and devise a long-term plan for her treatment. Medical professionals knew she was facing an uphill battle, and she would need a dedicated, hands-on physician who would be readily available for appointments.
The hospital recommended a new, talented young doctor who was very sharp and would be ideal to take on this type of patient. Angela agreed and the appointment was set.
Days later, after arriving to the appointment, Angela caught on to something familiar about the new doctor that felt like sudden ice water rolling down her back on a summer day.
He was Black.
Without warning, the dam she’d built up to hold back the emotional residue from the handsome, well-dressed ophthalmologist during her youth (who missed the preventable monster named glaucoma that eventually stole her vision) was cracking.
Angela: “My faith had totally lapsed in Black physicians because of what had happened to me. Over the years, the reinforcement of negative messages around using Black doctors, Black lawyers, Black mechanics—Black anything—became even louder for me. The idea was that that they were not as good or as trustworthy. I was not very keen on this man being my mom’s doctor—at all.”
An Eye-Opening Redemption
Mockingbird: What happened during the appointment?
Angela: “I paid attention during this appointment; how caring he was toward her. How he took his time. It wasn’t a quick 15-minute appointment. He evaluated her, asked her to walk, tested her strength levels so that he could measure the impact of the stroke, got close to her, touched her—and he made her feel very loved. He talked to her about the importance of taking her medicines.
She opened up to him; cried because of the loss she experienced. Changes in her mental capacity, not being able to go to work. She was very depressed because of those things. He addressed all of those parts of her pain during that very first meeting, and his care evolved from that point on.”
Angela: “After he was done taking care of Mom, he would look over and ask our family if we were okay. Mom wasn’t very motivated to go to doctors in the past; they’d often guilt her because of her family medical history and being overweight.”
Could it be possible that the judgement Black people feel from healthcare providers contributes to healthcare hesitancy? The feeling of safety is a cornerstone when building a relationship of trust. It’s difficult for a person to feel safe when they are being judged.
Thinking clinically and effectively regarding what is happening in a patient’s life calls for healthcare spaces that are free from negative, counter-productive assumptions.
Angela: “This Black doctor didn’t castigate her because of those things. He came from a place of understanding. He kept his interactions in a place of encouragement.
My mother was on 16 different prescriptions. Our new doctor was considerate of the type of medications that would work, the insurance we had, and what prescriptions we could afford based on our income level.
He took such good care of my mother for nearly 15 years until she passed away. He’s now my father and my sister’s doctor.
He renewed my confidence in Black physicians to the point where I now prefer and quite regularly request a Black physician for my medical care.”
Mockingbird: Tell us more about this powerful pivot in your perspective on Black doctors.
Angela: “I enjoy the fact that they understand the whole person; our lives, our history—the types of foods that our great, great grandparents had to eat, the types of foods that are available to many of us now, the level of access to insurance we have, our varying education levels.
Margie’s doctor also appropriately disclosed stories about his life and family that helped them through their trauma—and for the first time in a doctor’s office, they could all relate to their doctor’s experiences, too.
Over time, the family came to discover more and more about this young physician.
Although he earned a medical degree from a prominent school, was a subject matter expert in minority health concerns, and held a master’s degree in Public Health, he happened to grow up in a poor neighborhood.
It was a combination of the education he’d received, along with his shared identity with patients that allowed him to provide authentically empathetic, compassionate care to members of his own marginalized group.
He not only understood the epidemiology, sociology, and the likely prognosis, he had lived experiences to draw from related to how these realities often come to be.
What is often observed between non-black doctors who are serving Black patients is usually quite the contrary.
Discomfort, limited communication, miscommunication, withdrawn demeanor, personal prejudice and stereotypes often lead to brief, cold, non-compassionate and transactional, ineffective medical appointments, where Black patients don’t get the care, attention, resources or support they deserve.
It wasn’t the fact that Angela’s first ophthalmologist was Black that caused him to miss the early warning signs of glaucoma.
Obviously, Blackness itself doesn’t impact intellectual ability. Race, however, has been proven to impact educational resources, based upon social hierarchy. This was particularly true during the 1980s, when Angela was receiving care from a Black physician.
Much like any other field, physicians benefit from being able to confer with specialists and other experts (who will often share the latest medical knowledge) as they ponder various patient medical conditions. Because of the very real limitations Black people experienced, these resources weren’t readily available to them in the same way; they commonly defaulted to their White counterparts.
Integrated environments now allow Black physicians critical access consultation, which has the potential to restore a level of confidence for those who have developed medical mistrust for services provided by Black doctors.
More Black doctors (who can offer African American patients quality care and authentic connections) are critical. Some health experts even believe African Americans are actually more likely to live longer, healthier lives if treated by Black doctors.
Former President Barack Obama is famously quoted as saying, “we have more in common than we have things that divide us.”
This philosophy may or may not have moved the needle on this country’s politics around human decency, but perhaps it offers us a start to reducing healthcare hesitancy in exam rooms all over the United States—whether the patient looks like the provider or not.