Last month, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared racism a public health crisis in the wake of a report released by the city’s health department, which illustrated the large gap in health outcomes between Black and non-Black Chicagoans.
The report’s reverberations, however, were felt beyond the city. Dr. Tamara Bland, an assistant professor in nursing and acting executive director of the nursing program at Dominican University in River Forest, said the health gap is more than a study to her — it’s real life.
As a former health-care nurse on Chicago’s West Side, a nurse in the cardiac care unit at Rush, and an educator, Bland said she’s seen how racial discrimination in health care works and how it gets perpetuated.
She’s also felt the gap in other ways.
“Where it hit home for me was with my baby sister, who was a Type 1 diabetic,” Bland said. “I remember her being sick and people just blew my parents off. She eventually wound up in the ICU with it when she was first diagnosed.”
She said she witnessed how some professionals in the health-care system wouldn’t listen to her parents and showed very little empathy as they attempted to navigate the health-care system, both for themselves and on behalf of her sister, who eventually died from complications of Type 1 diabetes.
Bland also experienced her father’s deep distrust of medical professionals, which she said originated from his time growing up in the South.
“There’s this community of trust that needs to be built and [the lack of that trust] is a fundamental failure of the health-care system,” she said. “We haven’t built this fundamental trust with communities of color.”
According to the Chicago Health Department report, the average lifespan of Black Chicagoans is roughly 71 years old while the lifespans of white, Latino and Asian residents of the city is around 81 years old.
The disparity is partly due to chronic diseases like diabetes — a disease 70% more likely to end the life of a Black Chicago resident than a city resident who is white.
Health disparities are driven by a variety of factors, experts say, including the fact that Blacks are more likely to live in food deserts, less likely to afford health care and routine doctor visits and less likely to get empathetic treatment once they do go into the hospital.
Mayor Lightfoot made her declaration last month at the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation in North Lawndale, where an exhibit commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for fair housing in Chicago.
King lived in an apartment in North Lawndale in 1966 in order to protest the city’s racist and discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining, or the practice of refusing to lend to people because of their race — a practice that helped create today’s food deserts in the city’s predominantly Black West and South sides.
“The results of these events and practices are the source of the great disparities we still see at this moment in health, wealth and almost every other important indicator of well-being,” Lightfoot said.
Bland echoed the mayor’s analysis of race-based health outcomes.
“As an educator, I want people I talk to and students to understand that the symbiotic relationship between law and medicine itself creates health disparities,” Bland said. “In order to achieve health equity, we have to look at everything.”