Barbara Dawson was 57 years old. She lived in Bristol, Florida. On December 21, 2015, she went to Calhoun Liberty Hospital, in nearby Blountstown, complaining of extreme shortness of breath.
The physical cause for Dawson’s complaints was not immediately determined. However, the hospital had complaints about Dawson herself — and called for police intervention. According to Blountstown Police Chief Mark Mallory, Dawson “was causing a disturbance in the hospital with her language and the volume of her voice.” She was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing, and she was led to the parking lot in handcuffs, shortly after she’d been judged healthy enough to leave and discharged by Calhoun Liberty staff. While being escorted into a patrol car in the hospital parking lot, Dawson collapsed. She was brought back into Calhoun Liberty hospital on a gurney. Less than two hours later, she was pronounced dead. The cause of death was a blood clot in her lung.
Dawson’s case is now under investigation, and there are currently a variety of unknowns. For example, it is unclear whether she had a pulse when she was taken back into the hospital. The police chief’s notes say she did, while Dawson’s relatives say a doctor did not report a pulse after her collapse.
However, some of the more basic facts of the case are worth exploring:
Barbara Dawson was female.
This is notable because studies show that women too often encounter difficulties in being understood or taken seriously by the medical establishment. One such study from 2015, focused on young women and heart disease, was led by the Yale School of Public Health and stressed the importance of “identifying strategies to empower women to recognize symptoms and seek prompt care without stigma or perceived judgment.”
As a breast cancer survivor, I can cite far too many cases in which women, particularly those younger than the disease’s general demographic, discovered a breast lump, brought it to a doctor’s attention, and were assured that the lump “could not” be cancerous — only to find, when they succeeded in pushing for further tests, that it was.
When I discovered a breast lump via self-exam, at age 40, I was not told it could not be cancerous. In fact, I’d sought out a gynecological oncologist several years before due to my family health history. However, seeking out the doctor and actually getting her attention — or even an appointment — in a timely way turned out to be two different things. It took almost two months, and a succession of increasingly agitated phone calls on my part, before I was “fit into the schedule” for a diagnostic mammogram at her busy hospital. After my diagnosis, I thought back on my various difficulties in accessing timely care and vowed never again to let myself be put off.
Barbara Dawson knew she did not feel well and did try to get the care she needed. Daryl Parks, an attorney representing Dawson’s family, asked why a less hostile protocol was not followed: “The most reasonable thing to do is to let her sit there and be able to settle down until she felt well. Instead, she is forcibly removed and put in cuffs. The early facts of this case should cause a great concern for everyone.”
In fact, this was not the first time police were called to remove Dawson from Calhoun Liberty. In December 2012, hospital staff felt she was well enough to leave, but Dawson did not. She became agitated, and the police were called in. Eventually, Dawson was allowed to remain in the hospital as long as she kept her voice down.
Also known: Barbara Dawson was Black.
And in this country at this time, that too often makes a difference, in healthcare settings as well as in situations of police intervention — as video footage is showing us time and time again. Citing a 2012 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stated, “your healthcare depends on who you are. Race and ethnicity continue to influence a patient’s chance of receiving many specific healthcare procedures and treatments. A thorough review of health-quality data shows that racial and ethnic minorities continue to receive lower-quality care than Whites. These differences persist even when insurance status and socioeconomic factors like education and income are taken into account.”
Once, while I was in chemotherapy, I experienced sudden, intense chest pains and called my doctor’s hospital. It was a Sunday, so I spoke with an ER doctor. He asked me questions about the drugs I was being given, and I answered quickly and with assurance. I’d done my homework; of course I knew what I was being given. Then he said that all forms of chemotherapy raise a patient’s likelihood of blood clots. “I didn’t know that,” I answered. “Well,” came the response, in a distinctly edgy tone, “that’s because you’re not a doctor.”
I am a White woman. I will never know firsthand what it is like to seek medical care as a person of color. But I can say that my experiences, and those of just about anyone I know who has experienced any significant health issue, show how hard it is to be a patient in this country. It’s a complicated dance, and in a time-critical situation, you’d better learn it fast. You want to describe your symptoms in ways that will lead to the best next steps. You want to ask relevant questions, but not so many as to be a nuisance.
And yet, it’s not that simple. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently said publically what many of us have said to one another: that Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas this past summer, would be alive today if she were White. The dislike the arresting officer quickly took to her is evident in the dash-cam video from the scene. It seems Calhoun Liberty staff didn’t much like Barbara Dawson, either. Both these Black women were in positions of great vulnerability and ultimately they were not able to make those in power like them. Both were maltreated, and now they are dead. Although Bland’s troubles began with a lane change while driving and Dawson’s with breathing issues in a hospital, the horrible similarities are haunting. Both women died shortly after being arrested — arrests that were questionable from their very first moments.
Calhoun Liberty is a small hospital — it has 25 beds and no psychiatric staff. Still, it seems clear that training in communication and conflict resolution should be mandatory, nationwide, for any hospital staff member who will be working closely with patients. This type of training is also generally required of police already—but it was certainly not in any way evident during Sandra Bland’s arrest.
No one’s life should end as Barbara Dawson’s, or Sandra Bland’s, did. We can honor the lives of these women by advocating for changes in the way caretakers and authorities interact with the public they are meant to serve.
Pamela Grossman lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been published in outlets such as the “Village Voice,” Time.com, “Ms.,” Salon.com, and “Real Simple.” She believes in the tremendous power of everyone pitching in.