The COVID-19 pandemic comprises two crises at the same time: one of health and one of race. Death rates from COVID-19 are 3.6 times higher for Blacks than whites. These racial health disparities cannot be fully explained by socioeconomic status (SES) measures like education, income or affluence. One example is Dr. Susan Moore—a 52-year-old Black physician—who died of COVID-19 at an Indiana hospital on Sunday, December 20, 2020. While many names of those lost to COVID-19 will fade over time, I want you to remember Dr. Moore, not only for her service to her patients, but also for her courage to call out racism in the face of her own mortality.
After immigrating from Jamaica with her family as a child, she spent most of her formative years in Michigan, earning her M.D at the University of Michigan Medical School and specializing in geriatrics. Dr. Moore was no stranger to hardship and was the sole care provider for two parents with dementia and her 19-year-old son, who was a college freshman.
Moore tested positive for COVID-19 on November 29, 2020 and was admitted to Indiana University North hospital on December 4. On that same day, Dr. Moore recorded a seven-and-a-half-minute video describing mistreatment she believed was related to her race, at the hand of Dr. Eric Bannec, a white hospitalist. While lying in a hospital bed with oxygen tubes hanging from her nose, she described begging Dr. Bannec for Remdesivir, a drug used to reduce recovery time from COVID-19. He denied her request, saying “you don’t need it, you’re not short of breath.” Due to a pre-existing condition, Dr. Moore was in significant pain and asked for medication to alleviate it. Dr. Bannec refused to prescribe narcotics for pain and she said, “he made me feel like I was a drug addict.”
While the press exposed her story after her death, I watched it unfold from the start. We both belong to Physicians Moms Group (PMG), a group of 75,000 physician mothers on Facebook, which aims to support each other physically, mentally, emotionally, and medically. Along with her video, Dr. Moore wrote, “I am so scared please give me some advice on how to proceed.”
Outraged by her video, PMG physicians contacted IU North to demand proper care for Dr. Moore. We pooled our resources to support her: sending messages, taking meals to her family members, checking on her in-person at the hospital, and much more. At one point, a physician caring for Dr. Moore asked her why the hospital was inundated with calls from physicians and she explained 75,000 of us were now fighting for her life. And we wouldn’t stop anytime soon.
The next day, the Chief Medical Officer promised Dr. Moore he would address her needs. Imaging of her lungs revealed findings consistent with COVID-19. By then, Dr. Moore was coughing up blood and required 2L of Oxygen. She said, “I put forth if I was white, I would not have had to go through that.” She was right. Then, two days later, despite continued difficulty breathing and low oxygen readings, the hospital inexplicably sent her home. Dr. Moore wrote, “This is how Black people get killed. When you send them home and they can’t fight for themselves.” Twelve hours later, with a fever of 103 and low blood pressure, she was admitted, to Ascension-St. Vincent Carmel hospital, with bacterial pneumonia.
Over the next two days, her condition worsened. Her final update, on December 10, was haunting: “On bipap, being transferred to the ICU.” Bipap, the final stop before intubation, blows pressurized oxygen into the lungs through a tightly fitted mask. We all knew what this meant. Dr. Moore would be intubated, placed on a ventilator, and might not survive. Over the next 10 days, PMG members prayed, cried, and hoped for a miracle; but mostly, we hung our collective heads together in despair at not being able to change what was happening to one of our own.
On Sunday December 20, 2020, Dr. Susan Moore died from complications of COVID-19.
Despite the fact we all bleed red, in healthcare, racial bias rules the day. The death of Dr. Susan Moore symbolizes what it actually means to be Black in America. Her loss embodies the reality that education cannot protect Blacks from ill-treatment, inequality or injustice. Dr. Moore was a mother, a daughter, and a physician. If a Black physician cannot receive high quality healthcare in America, what does that mean for the Black population as a whole?
“I just want my pain to end.” And we must not give up until it does.