In the middle of lively conversation over dinner with a friend recently, he paused, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath while placing his hand over his chest. The pain was evident on his face. When I asked what was wrong, he shared that he had been experiencing chest pains and fatigue with regular occurrence.
“Have you been to the doctor?” I asked.
“Nah. It’s probably anxiety. I’ve been stressed at work lately.”
We talked honestly about the severity of his symptoms and when they started. And because we’re cool, I asked about the results from his latest physical examination. Turns out, not only had he not seen a doctor about his recent episodes, he had not had a regular check-up in three years. I urged him to go to the doctor as soon as possible in the event that his symptoms were evidence of a significant illness.
Health is wealth.
If health is wealth, and it is, then many African Americans are guilty of not knowing the balance in our accounts. Meaning, annual check-ups and preventative care are not what we do. For my friend, it was a perceived lack of time that moved annual doctor’s visits to the bottom of his list of priorities. I can identify with him. While I do not skip my annual visits to my primary care physician and gynecologist, often when I am sick, I ignore the symptoms. My husband has to gently encourage me to call the doctor. Between keeping up home, shuttling our girls to their activities, ministry, and work, who has time to sit in a waiting room for hours?
For others, lack of insurance coverage, fear of disease, and historic exploitation of black bodies in medical science that fostered a distrust of doctors keeps them from scheduling preventative exams and following up on symptoms. The reality is that preventative care costs less than treating a preventable disease and browsing Dr. Google can invoke more fear that having concrete information and making informed decisions about your health. There is also the systemic racism, trauma and devaluing of our bodies that African Americans have and continue to face — experiences that have caused us to normalize pain to the point that we ignore the signs when our bodies are suffering. I am reminded of the woman recorded in Luke 13:10-17 who was bent over for eighteen years. The Bible does not tell us that at any point she sought healing. She went about her business living in chronic pain until Jesus saw her and healed her.
We are living in grind culture, where many of us skimp on sleep and spend countless hours scrolling on devices while eating conveniently packaged foods packed with sodium, fat, and sugar. And although African Americans are living longer in general, reports show that younger African Americans (18-49) are afflicted with and dying of treatable diseases like heart disease, stroke, and complications from diabetes at an alarming rate, according to the CDC. In fact, younger African Americans are living with diseases that commonly affected older adults. The stressors from unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare negatively impacts their health. We are living longer, but we are getting sick earlier.
I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
Psalm 118:17 (NRSV)
What are we to do? The first thing is to make a decision to live. Part of that decision is to make annual physical examinations a priority. As the proverb goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I schedule all of my appointments—annual physical, gynecological exam, mammogram, and eye examination around my birthday. Doing so helps me to remember my appointments and also helps me to recognize the blessed gift of life that God has given me to steward. The other part of that decision to live is to listen to our bodies and to follow up with a doctor if even the slightest thing is off, with the recognition that we are worthy of care and that we do not have to live with chronic pain and disease.
Because our health is so valuable and important, I would suggest finding doctors that you feel comfortable with, that you can trust, and that are sensitive to your particular needs. Word of mouth from family, friends, and coworkers is the best way to find a good doctor. Developing a relationship with a doctor will also allow them to know your baseline levels, recognize patterns in your health, and know immediately when something needs additional attention.
The bottom line is that we have to see our doctors as if our lives depend on it…because they do. Whether you need to cram in a visit to the health center in-between college classes or you are scheduling your very first mammogram, here’s a list of the exams you need by decade, courtesy of Tri-City Medical Center:
For informational purposes only. The information in this article is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.