“It was just this constant panic,” Kay McField explained, with her arms pressed to her chest. “I wanted to talk to someone I knew was going to listen, who I could trust.”
Dr Janice Bacon was exactly the person Ms McField needed to talk to when she found herself spending most of her days in bed, feeling too tired and scared to get up as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed those around her.
While many people close to her tested positive for the coronavirus – among the others, a goddaughter and her uncle, – McField said she was terrified that she or her daughter, who both suffer from autoimmune diseases, would catch the virus. When she wasn’t in bed, the 51-year-old single mother was cleaning her house compulsively.
That is when she met a Black primary care physician practising in Mississippi for nearly four decades. Mr Bacon works at an all-African American-run trio of community health centres in Hinds County, where the population is overwhelmingly Black – and where the most coronavirus cases have been reported in the state.
Most of the families that Bacon and the more than 50 other doctors, nurses and social workers serve are African American, low-income and living with health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma that are more common among Black Americans. Even before the coronavirus, many were already dealing with depression and anxiety, Bacon pointed out.
Unsurprisingly, with the pandemic outbreak and the difficult governmental response, those problems have been exacerbated.
“There’s this feeling of, ‘I just can’t handle it all,’” Bacon admitted. “We are seeing serious mental health consequences.”
Many clinic patients are essential workers expected to work in-person even as coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Mississippi and many countries around the globe. While testing is free for community health centre patients, delays are a major issue, with some families waiting up to two weeks for results – which does make anxiety and distress to grow exponentially.
Bacon explained that she has seen people scrape together $187 to pay for a rapid test at other clinics that don’t accept Medicaid, in hopes of returning to work faster and not losing their jobs, which for many is the only way to pay the groceries and bills.
Analysis and reports that have been released right after the pandemic outbreak suggest that Black patients have better outcomes when treated by Black doctors and nurses. Yet, only 5% of doctors nationwide are Black, and only 2% are Black women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The Central Mississippi Health Services clinic where Bacon works is on the campus of Tougaloo College, a historically Black private institution for liberal arts in Mississippi, also affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Christian Church, has always been a gathering place for civil rights activists in the 1960s. As part of the national network of community health centres, it receives federal funding to serve communities designated as medically underserved areas, with fees regulated based on each individual’s ability to pay.
Over the years, Bacon has built confidence in a community generally sceptical of the health care system and made her Black patients trust the fact that they have a safe place to go for medical care.
“It’s meaningful to be taken care of by someone who looks like you, who understands you,” McField said. “Other doctors go into the exam room, and they don’t ask your name. And me, when I go there and be treated that way, I’m not going back no more.”
When she has gone elsewhere for medical care, McField explained, she has been talked down to, misdiagnosed or dismissed by doctors. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of implicit bias in the health care system, and Bacon has seen how this disparity hurts her patients.
Bacon has followed, treated, and cared for McField’s family for generations. She was initially the doctor for McField’s mother and her 10 siblings, but now she also looks after their children. The loyalty and trust that the McField family has on Bacon can be highlighted by the fact that Ms McField’s brother drove three hours from Memphis so his children could be seen by Dr Bacon.
Therefore, when McField opened up to Bacon about her depression during the pandemic, the doctor introduced her to a social worker who helped her find coping strategies such as writing in a journal, taking a break from watching the news and praying. Eventually, she said she’s doing a lot better now.