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At event, participants discuss racism in health care

The audience let out a collective gasp of shock when Ana Novais, a Connecticut health department director, relayed her story on screen: she took her 10-year-old son to the hospital when he suffered a broken arm, and after waiting two hours for care and inquiring what was taking so long, was told by a nurse, “You people – you want heath care and when its given to you, you protest.”

Novais was one of the many people featured in The Deadliest Disease in America, a 2008 documentary directed and produced by Crystal Emery. As part of a nationwide civic engagement tour to college campuses, organizers made a stop at Mills College Nov. 11.

The film looks at racism in health care, historically on up to the present, relying on powerful personal anecdotes, professional commentary and distressing statistics. The Oakland event was hosted by several organizations, including PUEBLO: People United for a Better Life in Oakland, the Alameda County Public Authority for In-Home Supportive Services, Black Womens Media Project, Bay Area Black Nurses Association, the Bay Area chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health.

“For us, it was very important to get community partnership,” said Sabrina Kwist, assistant director of Student Diversity Programs at Mills. She said the event has been in the works since August, when she first spoke with Emery on the phone.

“The film is very powerful because its based on Crystals story, and the advocacy comes from the community,” she said. “It’s not just, show a film and leave. It’s show a film, and lets have a dialog.”

Indeed, after the film was through participants split up into two groups to attend workshops. One centered on empowering community organizations to get involved at the legislative level to effect change, and was facilitated by Dr. Kelson Ettienne-Modeste, a health and wellness educator.

Denise Mettere, a health advocate, led the other, about identifying and reporting racism in health care delivery. There, each person was given a survey to fill out to detail their personal stories involving any racism they saw or experienced firsthand. Afterwards, they discussed stories as a group.

Metteres personal story? Her uncle, also her godfather, was battling cancer and living a rather immobile life in a hospital bed. He developed a bed sore last December, which his physician decided to remove, “leaving a huge, gaping wound,” she said. When the family asked the doctor what he planned to do to make it heal, he responded, “I don’t have a plan. I don’t need one. Hell be dead in three days.”

Not believing the doctor had the authority to put a death sentence on anyone, Meterre said her family worked to move her uncle out of the hospital, and he lived not three days, but six months.

“We’ve all had personal journeys navigating the heath care system. Sometimes we’ve been successful, and sometimes we haven’t,” she told the audience earlier that night, before the films screening. “We all get to be – if we choose to be – angels to help each other.” She said she hoped the documentary would move viewers to awareness and inspire them to take action.

Emery said she made the film due to her experiences with racism, particularly in the heath care industry. Emery is black and lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. She described herself as an up and coming theater and film director, who had worked extensively in Europe, when she was diagnosed with the disease several years ago. It left her wheelchair-bound and in need of regular physical therapy to prevent stiff muscles.

In the documentary Emery struggles, but ultimately prevails, to work through the legal system to reinstate her coverage of physical therapy, after it was denied.

She recorded a special message for the Oakland audience, comprised of about 50 community activists, Mills students, and health industry workers, saying she wished she could be there, but traveling was difficult. It was the group’s first event on the west coast.

At the end of the film, Emery asked the audience to “do the hard work now.”

“I’m just like you. I’m just an ordinary person who had a vision. That vision was this film,” she said. “Our problems will not be solved analytically. They must be solved through the heart.”

Katie Varma, project coordinator for the tour, said given the current public health care debate, these events are as timely as ever.

“This is really an issue of inequity in our society,” she said. “Health care is just the conduit for talking about race and eliminating disparities.” And the first step, she said, is getting every American adequately insured.

The team is putting together a letter writing campaign for participants at each event, which will be mailed to Congress collectively. Organizers also spearheaded a months to year-long advocacy and leadership training program to help community organizations work on an issue identified in their community.

The tour is sponsored by nonprofit URU, The Right to Be, which Emery founded.

This story first ran in Oakland Local.