Migraines don’t see color, but the health care world seems to.
Several years ago, I began to see more and more research coming out about how people of color are often ignored, underdiagnosed, or undertreated. The studies suggested that many health care professionals assume people of color have a higher tolerance for pain.
We are often less likely to be taken seriously or believed when we share our symptoms. As I learned about the research, my mind couldn’t help but think back to times in my migraine journey when I felt like the people in the articles.
The Waiting Room
Once, I drove myself (barely) to an urgent care center because my migraine was so bad. I was vomiting and in so much pain. I checked in at the front desk and I felt very dismissed. I explained my pain, and if the front desk lady didn’t roll her eyes, she started to. She was cold. She was not affected. Meanwhile, I was in tears. I chalked it up to her personality until another woman walked up.
She was white and about my age. I saw the front desk lady’s posture change. Her cold look eased into a gentle smile. I waited for over 3 hours cringing in pain – running back and forth to the restroom. Meanwhile, person after person went back to be seen.
Once I made it, I was exhausted. I had no fight left in me, and I was starting to black out. The doctor had compassion and suggested I get a shot for the pain. Who knows why I had to wait that long? A saying goes: People don’t remember what you say or do. They remember how you made them feel. On that day, I felt like I didn’t matter.
People of color are often misdiagnosed or have late diagnoses, compared to their white counterparts. I was so grateful (in a weird way) that my mom and several aunts had migraines. It allowed me to walk boldly into the doctor’s office and confidently share that I, too, likely had migraines. After sharing every symptom known to be associated with a migraine, one doctor suggested I keep a headache diary for a month before prescribing any medication.
I felt defeated. I checked all the migraine boxes and had a family history! When I told my mom, she was very upset. I resorted to over-the-counter migraine medicine (available at the time) until I could find another doctor. The new doctor wrote a prescription for migraine medication right away. I will always be grateful to her.
Time Off Work
Migraines are unpredictable. At times, I’ve needed to leave work early or have had to call out for an entire day. I recall getting “attitude” from prior bosses and a lack of empathy. However, I didn’t observe the same treatment when my co-workers needed time off for any number of ailments.
In hindsight, I wonder if the “Black women are stronger than most” thinking was at play for former managers. Oh, if I could shout from the rooftops: “Black women hurt. We cry. Our hearts get broken. We feel pain. We have migraines!” The lack of empathy has been a consistent challenge.
I have felt like a victim of medical racism on numerous occasions – with my migraines and for other conditions. I have watched people I love be dismissed by doctors. I have comforted friends and family members who were left to deal with agonizing pain due to the misconception that people of color will misuse drugs and painkillers. My heart has broken as I’ve said goodbye to loved ones who I strongly believe were neglected and paid the ultimate price.
I want to live in a world where medical professionals treat all patients the same. Although my hue may be different, I want them to pretend their own daughter or sister is sitting before them – asking for help, begging for relief. With more attention to this issue, I am hopeful we’ll get there – someday.
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