The new healthy me is still Black in COVID's America

I thought I'd conquered my valid distrust of the medical field, but one messed-up test threatened to undo it all

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 19, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Photo collage pertaining to health, exercise, doctors and COVID-19 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Photo collage pertaining to health, exercise, doctors and COVID-19 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Hey, baby!" my wife Caron said, smiling her way into the room. "The Health Department is doing free COVID tests on the church parking lot! Would you like to get one?"

What I thought: Isn't the best place to catch COVID a test site where people go to see if they have COIVD and be tested by people who test people for COVID all day? I'd rather attend a Trump rally in Alabama wearing my Huey P. Newton T-shirt and carrying a Black Lives Matter picket sign.

What I said: "I mean, we don't have any symptoms. I don't really wanna be around a bunch of people. But we can go if you want, baby."

"We'll go early on Friday!" she said, exiting with the same smile. 

The old me would never voluntarily go and get a COVID test when I felt fine. I'd wait until my body performed each and every symptom across the board, from the fever and the shortness of breath to the inability to taste food. One or two symptoms wouldn't be good enough, either — I'd have to have them all at the same time. Only then would I seek treatment.

This is how I was raised. I come from the school of you don't go to the hospital unless you're dying, even if you do have insurance. You could get shot, break a leg, or have your index finger swallowed by a lawnmower, doesn't matter: just drink some water or some ginger ale, take a nap and you'll be good in the morning. But I'm trying to be better now, and I'm encouraging the men around me to do the same. 

By trying, I mean I have a primary care physician so I'm no longer playing Russian Roulette in the ER when I feel bad. I get annual physicals. I aim to hit the dentist twice a year, when the pandemic isn't stopping me. And I actually listen to what these professionals say, keeping all of my self-diagnoses and Googled explanations for what's happing to my body to myself.

I also ride about 13 miles a day on my Peloton bike. I'm all in: wearing my Peloton T-shirt, learning from my instructors, adopting their breathing techniques and positive outlooks, reciting their motivational quotes with religious intensity. When confronted with life's annoying hurdles like systemic racism, I tell myself, "if you can conquer this 45-minute Hip Hop Arms and Intervals ride, you can conquer anything!" 

I have not been perfect. I need to do better; we all do. But when news of Chadwick Boseman's death flashed across the screen, I dropped my phone. The "Black Panther" star — a man literally built like a superhero — was only 43, at the height of his career, and gone in the blink of an eye due to colon cancer.

Obviously the Peloton lifestyle isn't going to prevent me from getting colon cancer. But most of the men I know aren't being tested regularly, if they're even going in for check-ups at all. For men who were raised not to seek professional treatment even when they can feel or see something's wrong, preventative medicine often isn't even on the radar. We don't even get the opportunity to fight these deadly illnesses before it's too late. 

* * *

On the way to the testing site I thought about the ways I would respond if I tested positive for COVID or if my wife did. What if our baby was sick? What would that nightmare look like? The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go. A test had the power to make a hypothetical real. Images of infants strapped to ventilators spiraled through my head as we pulled into the parking lot. I tried to calm myself by remembering that we had no symptoms, even though there are asymptomatic people out right now spreading the virus around the world. 

"Let me go first?" I asked my wife. "You can stay in the car with the baby. I'll get a feel for the test and tell you if it's weird or not." 

She agreed. I put on my mask, flooded my hands and forearms with enough sanitizer to sting, exited our truck and took my place on line with the rest of the COVID-curious. 

* * *

My distrust of medicine didn't come out of left field. I know how Black people have been treated since the beginning of American medicine. We've been used as guinea pigs throughout its history, from Dr. James Marion Sims' brutal treatment of enslaved women during the invention of the vaginal speculum and the neonatal tetanus experiments he performed on enslaved babies, in which he beat holes into their heads with a shoemaker's awl, to the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," in which white scientists lied to Black men saying that they were treating them for "bad blood" when they were actually watching them suffer. I carry that history with me into every exam room. 

Many Black people see going to be tested or treated for COVID-19 as a death sentence, since conditions like asthma, which we are most likely to have because the air quality in our neighborhoods is poorer, and diabetes, which we are more likely to have because Black Americans historically have not had equal access to healthy food, puts us more at risk for developing potentially fatal cases.

My college friend Cliff often posted on Facebook about poverty, inequality, and how Black people are treated in America. Cliff died from COVID-19. "In poverty, there is a lack of access," Cliff wrote in response to a friend the day before he passed. "I grew up and live in West Baltimore. How many hospitals do we have? Two. Think of that. Two hospitals (Sinai and Bon Secours) for the ENTIRE West Baltimore. So, when you look at things like testing and treatment and combine them with things like access, you can clearly see how poverty plays a factor into who gets treated and who doesn't." 

The increased likelihood of complicating health factors and a systemic lack of access to quality care make Black people especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. But so many can't just chill in quarantine and #StayAtHome because they have to go to work in jobs designated as "essential," which comes with an increased likelihood of contact with the virus. (The irony here is that America certainly doesn't treat Black people like we are "essential," as in "worth protecting.") All of the mail carriers, Amazon delivery drivers, and app couriers whose services help me stay at home to ride my Peloton and worry about my missed dentist appointment are Black. As usual, Black people are on the frontlines fighting for a country that kills us in multiple ways.

* * *

"Sir, fill this form out, front and back," a bubbly woman dressed in scrubs said, passing me a pen and a clipboard.

The line moved fast, with only about five people in front of me. By the time I finished completing the form, another woman wearing a different color of scrubs walked toward me with a long Q-tip aimed at my nostril. Slowly, she inserted the Q-tip deep into my nose, swabbed around, then placed it into a bag and told me to have a good day. I watched her walk off because I wanted to see what she did with my sample. The woman laughed her way over to a sample collector inside a huge van that looked like a clinic on wheels, and then I watched her prepare for testing the next person by pouring hand sanitizer on her hands without removing the gloves she wore while testing me. 

I flipped out. 

It's called hand sanitizer, not latex glove sanitizer! I panicked. All of the residual distrust of medicine and health care and doctors and hospitals flooded back into my brain. She probably just gave me COVID!

I wanted to walk over to her and yell, "That is the nastiest, most unsanitary display of carelessness I ever saw in my life!"

But I remembered my breathing techniques, my positive outlook. I tapped into the new healthy me. 

"Shut ya mouth, D. Watkins," I mumbled instead on the way back to our truck. "Asking her why she didn't change gloves and not getting a satisfying response will only ruin your day." 

The new healthy me had taken COVID-19 more seriously than anyone I knew. "Prepare for a lockdown! Load up on canned goods and Lysol wipes!" I had ranted to my friends and family like a maniac as quarantine approached. I just knew we were headed straight toward crazy times. 

Before coronavirus, we had family and friends over daily. But six months ago we shut everything down and decided to stay away from everyone. My daughter Cross was only three months old at the time, which means she can't say "my chest hurts" or "I've lost my sense of taste," so we took every precaution in our household, even breaking family members' hearts by telling them they couldn't see the baby until this is over.

Happy-go-lucky neighbors who intruded our six-foot imaginary bubble were told to get the f**k back. Groceries and other packages were disinfected as soon as they hit our doorsteps. We left the house only to take car rides. No meet-ups, no house parties, no quick visits to anywhere. And now I can't even trust the results of a test I didn't want to go take.

"What's wrong with you?" my wife asked. "Why you'd stand there like that?" 

I inhaled, then exhaled, and calmly said, "CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY ARE NOT CHANGING THEIR $*%& GLOVES!" 

"The health department is in charge of this," my wife said.

Was that supposed to make me feel better or worse? 

"They should know better!" she said. 

Then Caron morphed into full Karen mode. She was going to take the test, investigate, check their glove strategy, make sure they were clean and doing their jobs. And if they failed to meet what she thought the standard should be, then she was going to deliver the most devastating blow an agency could face from a person like her: My wife was going to write a letter.

She hopped out of the truck and marched toward the testing site. I looked at Cross sitting snug in her car seat and said, "Mommy is on a mission. They're in trouble now!" 

Caron marched back to the truck about five minutes later looking as unhappy as I was. "The woman told me that they sanitize their gloves, and then double-glove for extra safety." 

Double-glove?! I took a huge 45-minute Hip Hop Cycling inhale and a smooth 20-minute Rhythm & Blues exhale.

Then I directed my anger toward the health department for allowing such sloppy practices at a community testing site. And thought about Cliff, and the new healthy me, all of my work-outs and salads and dental appointments, and how we live in a country that claims it's a superpower even though our so-called leader shows no remorse for the 190,000 people who died of COVID under his watch. I thought of those 190,000 people too. Maybe a new healthy me doesn't even matter — maybe my race and social context have already sealed my fate, my family's fate. 

I imagine Caron was already drafting the letter inside of her head as we headed home. 

"I'm not worried," I reassured her. "You shouldn't be worried. We don't have any symptoms. I'm fine, you're fine, the baby will be fine. We will not let them ruin our weekend."

And it didn't. We had a pretty good weekend — I did my daily digital bike ride — and forgot about the test until the following Monday.

We were having a classic clichéd Black American Labor Day: Caron on the deck grilling, baby Cross in her tiny inflatable pool, and me eating crabs with my parents, trying to explain to my mom why Jay-Z's music is so much better and more important than all of the Luther Vandross and Mahalia Jackson songs together. 

Then Caron got the call from an unfamiliar number that turned out to be the health department. "Call us back," the voicemail said. "We have very important information about your health."

When we filled out our forms, we elected to be notified by text for negative results, not letter or phone call. If they were calling us on a holiday, it had to be bad news. 

"What do you think we should do?" Caron asked.

Then I noticed I had a missed call, too. Same number, same woman's voice, same message. I dialed it back and the call went straight to voicemail. I called back, then again, and again — I might have redialed like 16 times — only to get the same result. 

"Should we ask your parents to leave?" Caron asked me. "This is really anxiety provoking." 

Both of my parents are high-risk for COVID. They fit into those preexisting conditions categories, especially my dad who recently received a kidney transplant. Before that, he had his gallbladder removed, and before that, a piece of his liver removed, and something was done to his spleen before that — all while juggling high blood pressure and diabetes. 

But my parents weren't worried. We continued with our day, even though that terrible message from the health department festered inside both of our heads for the rest of the night. We received another round of voicemails later that evening, too, putting us both on edge until the next morning when we finally got the health department on the phone and were informed that we had both tested negative. 

Emotions soared­. I thanked God and Peloton. 

"Why did you decide to get a Covid test, Mr. Watkins?" the woman from the Health Department asked me. 

I hung up on her.

Caron was already working on her letter.

Apparently my precautions are working, so I'll continue to mask up, wash my hands every two minutes and encourage others to do the same. Realizing that I can calm myself down and work to keep my cool through this stressful period has been an unexpected reward. I can't imagine what my reaction would have been if we had tested positive, but I hope it would have been to keep doing what's right. The new healthy me is worthless if I only focus on my body and ignore my mindset, my outlook on life and the way that I treat other people, especially in times of crisis. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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