By Breanna Lathrop

Today I was seeing a patient I’ve been working with for a couple years now. We talked about his medication, his health, where he is living now, and his future plans. After his blood work, I brought in his bag of medications. He stopped before leaving and told me, “I just want to thank you all here for helping us homeless guys. I don’t know what I would do without you.” While I felt grateful that he took the time to share this encouragement, I mostly felt anger. He shouldn’t have to be thanking me for primary health care. What kind of world is it where people experiencing homelessness expect to go without care?

His words seemed especially poignant because when he started his care at the clinic, he had severe respiratory disease. I remember many visits where he literally couldn’t breathe. Breathing should be the expectation, not a privilege.

In the midst of a pandemic already wrought with racial disparities, recent events demonstrate the pervasiveness of racism in our country. My work in health care is largely mitigating the physical impact inequity. At the clinic today, I also saw a patient who left the clinic in a stretcher just a month ago. “I honestly wasn’t sure I would see you again,” I told him. He smiles, “Guys from my neighborhood don’t live to be my age so I guess God has more for me to do.” He’s right. As a black man from a poor neighborhood, he has exceeded the life expectancy for the census tract in which he was born. Another patient told me he can’t watch the news. “I just stay to myself,” he says, “because I see the news and that could happen to me.” He doesn’t have to elaborate. Men who look like him keep getting killed.

I have spent the last several months focused on responding to COVID-19. It’s necessary and important work but the nation is plagued with a much more pervasive, devastating pandemic: racism. It’s visible in the video of George Floyd’s horrific death but death from racism happens in less visible ways every day. In a nation built on white supremacy, black bodies bear the stress and destruction caused by both overt racist acts and constant micro-aggressions resulting in deeply rooted inequities. My work to restore health through medicine matters not if I do not do the work to identify the ways in which I am complicit in this inequity and fight racism within myself and my community. Saving lives depends on our collective ability to confront racism and inequity in this country.

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