I am proud to be one of three journalists selected nationwide to represent The Baltimore Times as a 2023 Commonwealth Health Reporting Fellow. This yearlong writing fellowship is awarded and funded by Knight X LMA BloomLab.
In no small measure The Baltimore Times was awarded this prestigious fellowship in recognition of their longstanding commitment to look beyond the headlines to better inform its readers. Each week the editorial staff develops and delivers honest, straightforward stories curated to educate, entertain and improve our well-being. These are The Baltimore Times’ guiding goals. The writers ask themselves does this article fulfill one or more goal?
For the next 12 months, I shall go behind the front-page news to develop meaningful stories about health disparities and show how it diminishes the lives of Americans. The objective is to identify strategies that will bring bias-free healthcare to marginalized communities. It will offer a look at common inequities found in unexpected places, practiced by familiar faces.
In my experience as a consumer and health journalist, the alarming truth is African Americans, rich or poor are at risk for biased treatment during any encounter with medical providers. That is not a new or unexamined problem.
The primary focus of HealthBeat will be the long-and short-term consequences of differential treatment. Weekly stories will identify possible solutions or provide suggestions for seeking further information, with advice and recommendations from respected members of the medical community and health care stakeholders.
My professional relationship with The Baltimore Times began in 1996. As a child, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer would have been a newspaper columnist. When I pitched the idea of a features column titled “Health Matters,” I was given my dream job by Joy Bramble, The Baltimore Times founder and publisher. A remarkable media visionary, Mrs. Bramble has kept the paper true to its original mission of positive stories about positive people!
A year after its launch, the column was published weekly. It immediately proved an effective way to reach a wider audience for the minority wellness articles I wrote for the WK Kellogg Foundation’s Vision for Health initiative. Topics included: hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, dental, maternal, men’s health and persistent environmental hazards such as lead paint poisoning.
The program’s offices were in the heart of West Baltimore’s long troubled Sandtown-Winchester community. It is the same neighborhood where riots broke out, triggered by the police involved death of a longtime resident named Freddie Gray. Baltimore and the Maryland National Guard grappled with days of lawlessness and shunning the national media attention. Meanwhile, it was reported that Mr. Gray’s blood had tested “dangerously toxic” for years. Records showed that he and his twin sister were lead poisoned as young children.
Freddie struggled academically; his classroom difficulties were attributed to irreversible brain damage caused by the lead. The frequent exposure lowered his IQ, significantly shortened his attention span, and increased the capacity of impulsive, irresponsible behavior. Medically, he was a victim of an illness the CDC says is completely preventable. Long ago his mental and health issues should have been treated accordingly. His mistreatment does not end there.
With smoke and widespread destruction filling the streets of West Baltimore, a large local newspaper ran an editorial paraphrased by, “yes Freddie, life dealt you a few bad cards, but it was your decision to repeatedly break the law that led to the fatal police wagon ride.”
Some of the people who shared that opinion were Black. Proof that racial disparities can be rigorously practiced by members of the victim’s own race. Bolstered, perhaps by the media’s portrayal of Freddie Gray as a lawless nuisance who did not deserve to be seen as a martyr, a victim of police brutality.
But what if the poisoning had crippled his body, rather than his brain? Without the use of his legs, would anyone expect him to walk or run? With a more obvious affliction, he may have been assigned a treatment plan more appropriate to his underlying illness.
We must consider as well, if the daily perils of a young, poor, under-educated, Black man had not cut Mr. Gray’s life short. The exposure to poisonous paint dust and chips would have made his prospects for a healthy, productive future equally dim.
Nevertheless, inexcusable gaps in public health policy and spotty enforcement of lead paint abatement mandates have damaged the lives and compromised the future of poor, medically underserved children for decades. There is chilling predictability to what usually happens next: a host of problematic behaviors, such as short attention spans, poor judgment skills and other neurological deficits begin to surface in school.
Black kids like Freddie are frequently placed in special education. Without well informed student advocacy many children languish and continue to underperform. Studies show Black youngsters are less likely to be offered early testing for neurological and psychological disorders.
Like it or not Freddie Gray is one of the faces of health disparity. Not a sympathetic victim, he was a petty criminal without any felonies who sold drugs to support his habit. Nevertheless, he is one of scores of underserved black kids who failed to launch after exposure to an environmental toxin.
So, what one might ask is positive about Freddie Gray’s tragic story? I am positive that a closer, less reactionary examination of factors surrounding his life and death reveals at least one way to help eliminate a health disparity. We can begin by identifying illnesses considered completely preventable by the medical community, then advocate to increase community awareness for ways to avoid, treat, and eliminate environmental hazards and other preventable threats to wellness.
For nearly four decades The Baltimore Times has created and implemented strategies to promote the mental, physical, and spiritual health of our community. This fellowship will assist The Baltimore Times to continue its policy of forming productive partnerships with readers and health care providers. BT