Assetou Coulibaly had a headache for two weeks by the time her friends convinced her to seek medical help on May 10.
That eventually led to an experience at Royal Jubilee Hospital, where she fears her being Black played into nurses disregarding her pain and concerns, to the point where she suffered a panic attack.
She acknowledges that ER workers are extremely stressed due to the pandemic, but says her experience highlights the hesitancy Black women feel when it comes to seeking medical treatment.
“We find the medical system to us is what cops are to Black men,” she said.
When she called a clinic about her symptoms, a doctor told Coulibaly to go to the emergency ward immediately, fearing she could have meningitis and be seriously at risk.
Already wary of hospitals, Coulibaly heeded the urgent advice. After an eight-hour wait in the ER with her head still pounding, she was in a consultation room with a doctor who she says seemed more concerned about her condition than triage staff.
Originally from Mali and having lived all over the world, Coulibaly grew up seeing doctors who were immersed in treating BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) patients. She says the care from those doctors contrasts with her treatment at Royal Jubilee and elsewhere in Canada.
“They didn’t have those biases because they’ve been exposed and they have learned from those people,” she said of her initial contacts with practitioners.
After she received a CT scan at RJH, two nurses entered Coulibaly’s room and said they were going to draw blood and put an IV in simultaneously. Coulibaly warned that her small, finicky veins usually require a specialist to find. She said the nurses, however, unsuccessfully jabbed her several times in each arm in search of a vein, which left her in pain.
She expressed her pain to the nurses, but said they seemed “offended” by her reaction. The pain made her get stressed, which compounded when the nurses wouldn’t answer her questions about the IV medication she was about to receive, she said. As the meds flowed in, Coulibaly felt an “immensely weird” sensation, causing her to panic.
“I said, ‘You guys didn’t warn me about anything.’ I was freaking out and they were just standing and looking at me with a complete look of apathy,” she said.
Now panicking, she muttered that she wanted her mom.
“(The nurse) said, ‘well since she’s not here you’re just going to have to deal with it, aren’t you,’” Coulibaly said. “I just kept crying, I was like ‘I want to go home, I want to go home’ to myself and she was like ‘Well if you go home nobody’s going to give you care.’”
The nurses left as Coulibaly started to calm down, but she was still shaken. Over an hour passed and nobody checked up on her condition. After multiple failed attempts of getting staff’s attention, Coulibaly left for home as she started to panic again.
“I was told to come here because a medical professional who assessed me told me he was concerned for my well-being, because he was concerned I would die if there was something wrong,” she said. “If I have to die, I will die peacefully in my bed, not here.”
She frets her race played into the care she received.
“I got an unbiased diagnosis over the phone because the doctor didn’t know what I look like,” she said. “Once I was at the hospital, I was disregarded.”
She hopes nurses and hospital staff receive up-to-date training on racial bias and how to treat BIPOC patients who may be wary of the medical system. A statement from Island Health didn’t answer whether its medical staff receives racial bias training.
Island Health doesn’t discuss individual cases due to patient privacy. Their patient care quality office fields and investigates negative experience complaints.
“This process allows Island Health to constantly evaluate and improve our services, systems and policies,” the statement said, adding they’re “committed to cultural safety and humility, anti-racism and anti-oppression are part of our core work and we are working to improve every day.”
Coulibaly has submitted her experience to the office.
Island Health says its Indigenous liaison nurse program exists because “colonialism and systemic racism have significant negative impacts on the health of Indigenous peoples in British Columbia.” It did not say if similar programs exist for non-Indigenous BIPOC patients.
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