No, I don’t have sickle cell and I’m not pregnant:Why the NHS sucks for women of colour

By ChristinaManch

Under the current economic climate – benefits crackdown, bank bailouts, BBC’s move to Salford – you might be wondering why on earth I’ve decided to dedicate a whole blog piece on the one thing that still distinguishes Britain from the rest of the Western capitalist nations, the glorious National Health Service. That’s right, despite years of thriving capitalism (it must be thriving – it only takes two hours from London to Manchester now!) Neoliberalism and whatever other ‘isms’ The Guardian is using these days, the NHS is still here – arguably not for long – but it is nonetheless still here and accessible to those of us with useless degrees and call centre jobs that don’t come with sick pay; otherwise known as ‘the working class’.
My beef
 So, exactly what is my beef with the NHS? Before I share with you my personal experiences with this particular institution, just a quick reminder for those that think classism is the be-all and end-all of capitalism (i.e. Marxists, activists – whatever they want to call themselves): the NHS, as with all other institutions, is as misogynist; racist; lesbophobic; homophobic; transphobic and bi-phobic as the society it inhabits.  So do not feign disbelief or shock when I, a black lesbian woman, say that the NHS is not working for me.
Three years ago, during my last year of uni after a violent break up with my then partner I moved in with some friends. One day, out of the blue (literally out of nowhere) I felt a sharp pain in my lower abdomen. I cannot describe this pain, as I have nothing to compare it to; I just know it hurt, a lot. Having suffered from heavy and painful periods from a very young age I decided to ignore the pain and treat it with a hot water bottle and liver poison i.e. Paracetamol. But the pain did not and has not stopped. The next day my friends decided to take me to the county hospital.  We (a black Jew, a Jew Jew, a Jamaican, two Africans and a Bajan – you can imagine the looks we got) arrived at the hospital and it was the usual procedure: “What are your symptoms?”  “How long have you been feeling like this?” etc.  After about five minutes of pointless questions (pointless because there was no diagnosis) and a lot of tummy touching the ‘doctor’ gave me more liver poison and told me to come back in two hours if I was still in pain.  So we hung around the hospital and sure enough after two hours of liver poison in my system, I was still in immense pain. This is where it all began to get a bit weird – actually not so much weird just racist and sexist. 

 After deciding that they (by this point the ‘doctor’ was so baffled he got his other useless colleagues involved) could not figure out what was wrong with me they decided to play it by race and gender: ‘Do you have sickle cell?’ ‘Is there a possibility you could be pregnant?’ (Because in Western medicine pregnancy is, of course, a disease and shooting pain in the lower abdomen is a symptom of it). I cannot recall the amount of times I have been asked in the last three years if I have sickle cell. It actually got to a point where I was wondering if indeed I did have sickle cell and that it just wasn’t showing up in ANY of the numerous tests they did for it. Back to the story, since they could not figure out what was wrong with me they decided I needed to stay in hospital. After a lot of probing, liver poison, tummy touching, sickle cell testing and god knows what else, I was discharged (see how all institutions use the same language) and given liver poison to take at home.

Oh, I forgot to mention since I have ‘female’ genitalia they shipped me off to the gynaecologist even though the pain was not near my reproductive organs. So, this pattern goes on for three years in different hospitals in different cities with the same questions: ‘do you have sickle cell?’ ‘Is there a history of sickle cell in your family?’ Even if I did have sickle cell or a history of sickle cell in my family it still would not explain the pain.  ‘Is there a possibility you may be pregnant?’ Of course, they assume I sleep with men or that I have been raped and ended up pregnant as a consequence hence why I have this inexplicable pain. It started in May 2009; it is now June 2012 and I still have no diagnosis.
”Madame, you seem to be suffering from Femalenegroitis”

‘Save our NHS’
For the white liberals reading this you’re probably thinking about the many NHS-bashing articles and programmes you’ve seen where doctors mis-diagnose or completely miss serious illnesses and you are probably going to liken my experience to that. Nope, that is not what this is. My experience is an example of the systematic racism women of colour face on a day-to day-basis. If I was a white man firstly, I would not have been asked about any history of diseases that only white people get; secondly, I would not have been asked if I was pregnant nor would I have been shipped off to a special department that deals only with the male organs. The NHS is just as fucked up as all the other government institutions. I commend all those who go on the marches, petition etc. Kudos to you for fighting for free and accessible healthcare.  BUT, as long as we continue to live in this white capitalist patriarchal society, we – women of colour – will continue to be ignored and get screwed by the system. This has always been the case.

I don’t want to talk about slavery because it’s a bit boring now but a quick Google search of how black women’s (and men’s) bodies were used for ‘medical’ experiments shows the apathy we receive from (white) doctors, is a continuation of this deeply rooted racism. As for me, my latest GP is a black man (yay!) And so far he hasn’t mentioned anything about sickle cell or pregnancy (double yay!) We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime I have compiled a small list of tips to help you when using the NHS:
1. Always take someone with you to an appointment: one of the most dangerous things about the NHS is that the people using the service are afraid of challenging what they’ve been told by their doctor or GP. Doctors are in a position of power and it is very easy for them to intimidate people by using lots of fancy jargon that they know people won’t understand. Having someone else with you (white allies are handy for this) makes it a lot difficult for them to do this.
2. Prescriptions are not always the answer: What doctor’s appointment would be complete without a prescription right? Before buying any prescription be sure to ask as many questions as possible (What are the active ingredients? How does it work? Etc.) And then go home and Google it! Stay away from the creamy crack (not hair relaxer) –  Aqueous Cream and E45 – doctors love giving this out, every black household has had Aqueous Cream in it at some point, we need to break this cycle – there are alternatives.
3. Shop around: If you find that you are getting poor treatment from your GP or surgery then change. Again, the internet is here so use it. You can find reviews of NHS surgeries – don’t stick with your GP just because it’s close by.


About Black Feminists Manchester

This is a group for women who are ‘black’ in the political sense. I.e: women who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America) multi heritage and indigenous backgrounds.
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6 Responses to No, I don’t have sickle cell and I’m not pregnant:Why the NHS sucks for women of colour

  1. Christina Fonthes says:

    I know, the worst is that look when they think you’re lying “I dont know what’s wrong with you so you MUST be lying” , but what else do we expect to come out of a white male institution?
    Thanks for reading!

  2. miss pixie says:

    Hey 🙂

    Have you ever been checked out for endometriosis? Doctors are notoriously bad at recognising it, especially at a&e. It can cause pain all year round, and a spot in the wrong place, can cause horrific pain which shoots to another place entirely. Being a lesbian you may not have one of the main symptoms (pain during sex). But extremely painful periods are a major hallmark. It takes on average 7 years to be diagnosed, and women frequently have healthy and neccessary organs (the womb, ovaries, etc), removed, meanwhile the endometriosis is left in place, going on to cause further issue.

    I recently had an a&e doc try to palm off one of my medical issues onto ethnicity. Sigh. Sadly, this is the medical profession in most places, not just nhs.

    Hope you get everything sorted.

    • Christina says:

      Thanks for your comment – I’ve been checked for endometrioses and it’ not that. I had a coil for 6 excruciating months b’cos they thought it was that.

  3. Fairy says:

    Just a point. You will be asked if you are pregnant as all women of reproductive age are asked if they are pregnant on presenting to hospital as an emergency patient. So if you look vaguely female and look like you may be aged between 12 and 60 you will be asked. Not just because it could be a fitting explanation for abdominal pain, but because pregnancy is a contraindication for many investigations and drugs that may be given in diagnosing and treating the cause of your abdominal pain. Most hospital staff work on the “better safe than sorry” principle. You would be surprised how many people do not know they are pregnant or the thought has never crossed their mind before they break a limb, find themselves being consented for an X ray and realise they had better consent to a urine test first.

    As far as sickle cell goes – I agree – to write any pain in a young black woman as sickle cell related is really just laziness. Yes it does have to be ruled out initially, but once you have had the tests really it’s a non-starter.

    As a nurse I have often wondered about other discriminatory practices that go on in the hospital where I work. For example on reading the “single sex bays” policy I asked if there was any consideration for people who do not identify to a binary gender or who are transitioning. After firstly explaining what I meant by this I was told “Well it depends if they’ve had the surgery or not.” and “I suppose they would have to go in a side room”. Neither comment of which I found particularly helpful.

    Anyway – I wish you luck on getting a diagnosis. In my experience abdominal pain is usually bowel related (see gastro medicine or general surgeons), gynaecological (see gynae surgeons) or kidney stones/kidney infection (see general medicine or urology doctors). Most problems should be easily seen on a CT or at least an Ultrasound (get your GP to refer you). That said I went to A+E with abdominal pain once and even as a white, hereto-sexual nurse I was fobbed off with “It must be a urine infection” (it wasn’t). I suppose I did at least get some morphine to send me on my way a bit happier!

  4. Pingback: No, I don’t have sickle cell and I’m not pregnant: why the NHS sucks for women of colour | The Musings of a Congolese Lesbian

  5. Pingback: Self-care: An end to racism, misogyny, homophobia and other oppressions that harm queer women of colour | The Musings of a Congolese Lesbian

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