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Opinion | Feb 17, 2019

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 8

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 8

I had a serious problem with one of my molars, an upper left molar. The pain from this molar mostly stabbed in physiologic character and a tsunami of throbbing headaches always accompanied this stabbing pain. This tooth bled from time to time and mastication became problematic.

So I went to see my State-assigned primary health doctor who recommended a dentist, one who accepted the kind of State insurance I’d. Moreover, it was not as if I just developed the nagging toothache. It rather happened that I have had this toothache for some years but didn’t have a dental insurance to take care of it as I couldn’t afford one from the State. The State denied my health insurance application because it claimed my meager income automatically disqualified me.

A meager income from working as a security guard put me above the cutoff threshold for State approval. How on earth could New York have disqualified me? I was living from hand to mouth, and barely surviving. People across the US spent more on their pets than I could ever bring myself to spend on myself but, although I worked full-time and spent the rest of my life in school full-time as well, using part of this paltry income to defray extraneous school expenses as well as pay for some of my dental procedures, textbooks, bus and train fares, rent, and so on threatened my subsistent existence.

Sad that State reviewer(s) of my application ignored where I was channeling the other streams of this meager income into.

How on earth could I afford to defray these expenses on eight or nine dollars per hour? I lived within my means and cooked the same cheap food once every week. I hardly ate out.

If anyone had asked me about my living situation, I’d have said that my existence was one of a humiliating subsistence.

One of my New York-based white professors would tell me that I was a magician to survive on that skimpy income.

Indeed a magician I was!
And yet when I complained about the difficulties I faced, I was always told to shut up as many Americans lived in similar conditions. To put my situation in its proper context, I should say working full-time and going to school full-time made it extremely difficult for me to pick up additional hours in hopes of earning extra income to cover my expenses, an indispensable point lost on my legion of critics. Besides, the more hours one worked the more taxes were deducted from one’s earnings.

Living in New York was actually like living in the hard-labor singsong of Cornel West’s and Tavis Smiley’s The Rich and the Rest of Us and of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

That life, of living in New York, was like living the actualities of Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation and of Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States.

I’d later qualify for health insurance from the State on a second try. How I finally succeeded on my second try is a major book in and of itself, a book I hope to write in the future. The State recommended a private practice not too far from my residence. I called and made an appointment. This Bronx-based private practice, owned and managed by a Ghanaian-American doctor, now my primary health physician, made some contacts to a number of dentists and one in particular agreed to take my case. “We’ve got someone who is going to take your case,” a medical receptionist from this private practiced assured me. “This dentist accepts your State-approved dental insurance.”

I was beside myself with elation. I called the dental clinic and the dental receptionist I spoke to, a soft-spoken lady, asked me to come in for a clinical assessment of my situation. She gave me a date.

So I got on a train. Five minutes or so after the train took off, I received a call from one of my classmates, Rose, with whom I was taking the class Anatomy and Physiology. I was expecting this call because we had a group discussion that day. “I have a dental appointment,” I told her. “I’m on my way to see a dentist.”

“A dental appointment you have?”
“Yes.”
“Is it serious?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your tooth.”
“Yes.”
“Can you make it?”
“The discussion?”
“Yes.”
“I will do my best to be there after my appointment.”

Ironically, Rose wouldn’t let me go, and so she pushed me for more information. I told her about my toothache-driven throbbing headaches, hemorrhages, and stabbing pain. She asked about the type of dental insurance I’d. And I told her. Then she dropped a bombshell, “Don’t’ waste your time with that insurance. It’s useless. That insurance is as good as not having one.” I was dumbfounded. “I’ll tell you more about it later,” she said finally.

“I’ll take the niggling details later.”

“Sure.”
We said our goodbyes and hanged up.
What a world!
Her unadorned bluntness threw me out of kilter. That unprovoked bluntness originated in the depths of a human being who wasn’t used to concealing her pent-up feelings and reservations about social injustice and political hypocrisy behind the protocols of camaraderie. If and when she unhinged her acidic tongue she spoke truth to power, and with a confident heart soaked in a conscience circumscribed by moral fervor and social justice, refusing to dance around serious matters of medical urgency. That day she and I spoke on the phone was one of those days. But, I think my voice was too loud to attract the attention of many of the passengers in my car, passengers some of whom bombarded me with surprise looks. A few children stood with arms akimbo staring through the car’s windows and roof with dead eyes.

She on the other end of the phone spoke in a whisper. Rose’s whisper was the equivalent of a thunderous earthquake when she found herself sitting on an active volcano of righteous anger. Her whispering tongue was the sharp mind of scholar and courageous political activist Angela Davis.

I didn’t dismiss her reservations about the dental insurance out of hand, though. I knew she was telling the truth since I didn’t know her as a liar. A nagging question remained nonetheless, how could something I have fought so hard for suddenly turn out utterly useless? I dismissed the question as soon as it reared its ugly head. I got off the train and walked to the dental clinic, a stone’s throw from the train station. I checked in with two female dental receptionists, after which one of them accompanied me to the dentist’s office, ushering me in and shutting the door quietly behind her.

I saw what looked like pots of snake plant in the office, and the beautiful and assorted upholstery caught my undivided attention, too. The cornucopia of life lived in the fallopian tubes of these pots of exotic artistry. I felt like chanting the “nam myo ho renge kyo” of Nichiren Buddhism before these godly pots of natural beauty. I discovered Lotus Sutra in the infectious smiles of these pots. The goddesses of beauty surely inhabited the ovarian centrality of these pots.

The office had the feel and smell of oriental innocence, the colorful office oozing a quaintly ambience of acoustic moderation. Whoever the furnisher or interior designer was had an eye for aesthetic sophistication. I stood in the middle of the proverbial Garden of Eden. I wasn’t going to read Rodolphe Kasser’s, Marvin Meyer’s, and Gregor Wurst’s edited volume The Gospel of Judas in this heavenly galaxy to spoil my newfound sense of inner equanimity. I drove the Kiss of Judas out of my shackled mind, for I couldn’t allow the Judas of pain and bitterness and anger to steal the aesthetic momentariness of my nirvanic elation. At this point, the Judas of pain and bitterness and anger belonged in the occipital backwater of my thinking. Beauty and love conquered all.

I found myself face to face with the dentist, a beautiful white lady with a thicket of curly chestnut hair. Her aquiline nose stool firm on the inviting prominence of her gorgeous face and, her thin lips which barely moved or parted ways when she spoke with commanding airs, signaled me to occupy a seat across from her. I was already in the seat before she even completed her sentence, my legs having collapsed under the Sisyphean weight of her centripetal beauty and magnetic presence. Her professional body language and breathtaking beauty and accommodating presence did all the talking at the same time, with her dreamy eyes shooting Cupid’s arrow toward my liquefied heart. Suddenly I thought I was in the office for an effleurage, having completely forgotten about my episodic stabbing pain, throbbing headaches, and hemorrhagic dental experiences.

I was suddenly at peace and one with nature.
As if my crush on her was an anesthetic for my tired soul. False hope tugging at my heartstrings.

Very unusual!
Was it? I was daydreaming in the dental clinic. The pain returned momentarily, stabbing the jaded souls of my gums and rearranging the electrical circuits of my brain in such a way that I couldn’t make sense of environmental cues that mysteriously turned immanent images of pain into waves of romantic infatuation. I felt ashamed of myself but then soon realized I was only human.

Humans were not made to kill and maim. Humans were not made to die but to live. Affection, love, and romance were the engines of immortality. In other words humans, after all, were made to fall in love and to love even if from a distance. Love was beauty and in the calm heart of beauty lay hidden the fecund seeds of immortality. I was, therefore, expressing the basic character of my humanity in the deep of my emotional existence. Life looked good and beautiful even with my toothache.

In the dental office the mega baritone of Barry White and soft baritone of James Ingram rocked, soothed, and serenaded my itchy ears. I thought to myself, “This dental clinic has the feel of a lounge or massage parlor. My aching tooth needs a therapeutic massage. This gorgeous dentist is going to give me one, I guess.” I laughed off my mischievous thoughts.

I formally introduced myself. We then stepped out of her office into another room abutting her office. In this room she asked me to recline on a dental chair over which the prying eyes of white light flooded my face, forcing the shy emoji of my countenance into a strange wavy contortion. She bent over lightly and examined my buccal cavity cursorily then proceeded to x-ray a section of my teeth. She sent me home when she was done, and after she’d asked me to make another appointment for deep cleaning, without the benefit of palliative treatment for the aching tooth.

I honored my second appointment and, like the first appointment, she did absolutely nothing to ease my toothache although she x-rayed a different set of teeth. The aching molar remained in place as before, however. I went back home with a heavy heart bearing the same weighty problems I had gone to this dentist to seek permanent solutions for. I’d gone to the dental clinic as a tourist, a window shopper.

Bitterness filled me up when I went back to see the dentist again for the deep cleaning which, like many of my trademark experiences, turned out to be another disappointing appointment. She x-rayed another set of teeth and sent me home. Again she did absolutely nothing to palliate my aching tooth, and she didn’t do the deep cleaning, either. I was back to square one. I was in school then and the tenacious aches from this tooth, the hemorrhaging, and the throbbing headaches seriously interfered with my studies in addition to undermining my sleep hygiene. The system wasn’t fair to me.

I found myself in a strangulation hold of inescapable confusion. What was I to do? The system scrawled helplessness, hopelessness, and confusion across my scraggly face. On my way out of that morgue of a dental clinic, I asked the dental receptionists when my tooth would be taken care of so that I could finally enjoy some comfort and peace of mind. I never knew I was setting the world on fire with my innocent question. “American citizens are struggling to have their needs met by the State and federal governments and they’re not complaining,” one of them blurted out. “Immigrants like you should stop complaining and disturbing our ears.” That was unbelievably raw, unacceptably rude, unprofessional, and insulting. How could she say this to my face? What did I do wrong to incur this blatant assault on my dignity? She didn’t know that I too was an American citizen, a hardworking and law-abiding and tax-paying American citizen to boot.

I didn’t say a word to either of them. I went home to nurse my pain and bitterness.

I was eating at home weeks later when I suddenly felt something hard in my mouth, a foreign object of the consistency of a tiny piece of rock. I spat it out with a pool of blood, into a paper towel. I felt the object in my palm. The object was part of the aching tooth that had broken off leaving almost half of the original stalk in place. I called my father in Colorado and told him about it. “Call the State and report the dentist,” he advised. I did. The State representative I spoke to asked me to hang up while he called the dentist to straighten out the matter, during the brief hiatus immediately following my frantic call to the State.

The representative called me back and told me the dentist would be calling me shortly. And she did.

It was only after I reported the dentist to the State that she finally agreed to extract the remaining stalk. It turned out that Rose, an immigrant and Ghanaian like me, was telling me a painful truth about the system. What she shared with was part of a personal experienced she’d in New York. In fact, I got to know more about her harrowing experience when I detailed her on mine.

Rose and I shared the situational topology of mutual inclusivity in our common immigrant experiences and quest for survival in the searing belly of America’s internal colonialism.

It also turned out that beauty and brains didn’t always correctly define man’s character, I’d later learn. This gorgeous dentist who swam in a pool of omnipresent smile with bold, penetrating, intelligent and cordial eyes set in deep sockets erected around a scaffolding of universal inquisitiveness, and harbored a strange look of childlike and angelic innocence behind an all-knowing forehead, was also a colorful symbol of institutional corruption and system failure and bureaucratic elitism. And then, out of nowhere, I remembered late South Africa’s international roots reggae superstar Lucky Dube’s “It’s Not Easy,” a beautiful track on which he sang:

"You look so beautiful, so beautiful, and so innocent

"I did not know that behind that beauty
"Lies the true colors that will destroy me in the near future"

It’s likely that implicit bias may’ve informed her behavior and clinical decisions regarding my situation―though the extent to which this was the case is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty―an important issue Dayna Matthew takes up in the book Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Healthcare. He writes pointedly thus (Bridges, n.d):

“Why are black people sicker, and why do they die earlier, than other racial groups? Many factors likely contribute to the increased morbidity and mortality among black people. It is undeniable, though, that one of those factors is the care that they receive from their providers. Black people simply are not receiving the same quality of health care that their white counterparts receive, and this second-rate health care is shortening their lives.

“In 2005, the Institute of Medicine—a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization that now calls itself the National Academy of Medicine (NAM)—released a report documenting that the poverty in which black people disproportionately live cannot account for the fact that black people are sicker and have shorter life spans than their white complements. NAM found that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.” By “lower-quality health care,” NAM meant the concrete, inferior care that physicians give their black patients. NAM reported that minority persons are less likely than white persons to be given appropriate cardiac care, to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, and to receive the best treatments for stroke, cancer, or AIDS. It concluded by describing an “uncomfortable reality”: “some people in the United States were more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes simply because of their race or ethnicity, not just because they lack access to health care.”

“Scores of studies buttress NAM’s findings by documenting that providers are less likely to deliver effective treatments to people of color when compared to their white counterparts—even after controlling for characteristics like class, health behaviors, comorbidities, and access to health insurance and health care services….

“Indeed, when physicians were given the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—a test that purports to measure test takers’ implicit biases by asking them to link images of black and white faces with pleasant and unpleasant words under intense time constraints—they tend to associate white faces and pleasant words (and vice versa) more easily than black faces and pleasant words (and vice versa). Indeed, research appears to show that these anti-black/pro-white implicit biases are as prevalent among providers as they are among the general population.”

The writings of Khiara M. Bridges―from Critical Race Theory: A Primer to Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization―underwrite an in-depth scrutiny of these serious questions bordering on intersectionality.

Francis Kwarteng
Francis Kwarteng, © 2019

This author has authored 560 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: franciskwarteng

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