Health inequities are [insert expletive] killing us. Killing us. If I could say this every time someone asked me why I wanted to move back home to Flint, Michigan I would. But most people would not understand. Every week data and statistics are available that show black people dying from this or that at a higher rate. Preventable things. Treatable things. Sometimes straight negligence. Diseases or negligence that if prominent in the majority population might have a little more policies to combat it. But I digress. Privilege continues to smother this country into a spoiled child without a genuine perspective of its own weaknesses. The “greatness” and “American dream” we all swallowed in grade school is not reality. This place is a mess if you look closely or just look period.
Everything connects to health and life expectancy. And many, if not most, black people are losing or already lost.
So why did I decide to come back home? Why did I enter medical school and residency with the desire to return to Flint, Michigan to practice medicine? Because health disparities are killing us. Health inequities are killing us. And by us I mean black people. No disrespect to any other group but black people are dying. Dying from preventable things. Dying from a lack of representation. Dying from the slow process of change by advocates who are fighting for justice in a resistant system. But the world does not move quickly if it does not benefit enough of the right people. Health and life expectancy are not just impacted by the classic medical diseases one might think of but also by the social determinants of health like housing, education, employment, environment, crime and incarceration, and much more.
If you want to change the lives of your family, friends, and community it is helpful to be on the ground standing next to them. So here I am.
Also, home is home. Where my family and my roots are. But that would only be the PG version of my reasoning. For years and years I have read statistics. I am a statistic. Based on my own history of housing insecurities, family history, city history, and much more this whole doctor thing should not have really been a option. But at some point I wanted to confront the statistics and push back. And that drive is what has fueled my desire to address health disparities and also racial disparities that influence social determinants of health. To join the multitude of advocates that believe the existence of these health gaps despite modern medicine is shameful and borderline ridiculous.
I have lived in a lot of places with their own unique health disparities. New Orleans after Katrina. DC after gentrification. Chicago after every day. While I worked in Chicago I learned about the 1995 Heat Wave that disproportionately killed black people because of low income, lack of air conditioning, and even the fear of sleeping outside due to crime. That was the first time I saw refrigerator trucks for dead bodies, the second time would be Coronavirus 2020 in New York. Public health and health policy had failed people and these communities, multiple times, sometimes without remorse. When I was in medical school the water crisis in Flint hit. I knew about it and its impact on my family and friends before it got its fifteen minutes of national fame and coverage. I felt frustrated and helpless but still motivated to return home. Every time I came back to DC from break I felt humbled to have clean water. With time public health and health policies shaped my education, training, and interests. I am grateful for the eyeopening revelation and humbled to be in a position to be a catalyst for change, an advocate, and a resource.
So here I am. A new doctor in Flint, Michigan. Finally is an understatement. But the plan worked. I spent years and years formally learning and training but also informally learning how I could be a resource to the black community. Informally, because institutional education does not always do a good job of incorporating minorities into the curriculum (but that is a differnt topic for another day). For years, I listened to the constant use of the words like “urban”, “underrepresented”, and “underserved” often used as synonyms for black or low income or both while usually being one of few or the only black person in the room. The potential victim and potential solution. There are not enough diverse people at the tables. There are not a lot of black doctors. Not much of a fun fact but I believe the few black doctors are a powerful cohort of health professionals that can really impact the black community and the health disparities that exist. It is not just the opportunities of the patients who come in for an appointment but the opportunities in upstream medicine to be an advocate in health policies that encompass education, environment, employment, housing, etc.
But I also say this with caution of NOT placing the burden of addressing health disparities and health inequities on black health professionals ONLY.
I am excited for this homecoming. The city has changed but I know some amazing people in Flint. There’s beauty in many of the corners. There’s hope in the crevasses. And I know that I can contribute to improving health outcomes and quality of life for my family, friends, and community. I never had a black doctor growing up. I am looking forward to being that to some adults and children because representation always matters. I have always been a transplant in all these cities I have lived and worked in but now I’m just home. No future plans to move. No end date to countdown to. Able to care for patients but also be a part of the community and get a seat at the other tables in hopes of closing health gaps. I hope patients trust me despite a health system that has lost their trust multiple times. I hope to be present and to be a resource. I have been waiting for this opportunity for years and it should be interesting but I have faith my community will embrace me, welcoming me home as a fellow Flintstone.
Now my new bio line should read…
Dr Aisha Harris, black family medicine doctor practicing in her hometown of Flint, Michigan.
But y’all know they won’t let me put black in my bio so check my picture for clarification. Ok thanks.