• Indigenous patients need to feel safe when going to a hospital or clinic. (Getty)Source: Getty
Racism mars the healthcare system for Indigenous people, who are accused of faking pain, have their Aboriginality denied, and die while in state care.
Colleen Lavelle

2 Feb 2017 - 11:46 AM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2017 - 11:31 AM

Imagine being ill, being in pain, but you’re refused help from a hospital. Imagine being faced with a doctor that didn’t believe you, and a nurse who thought you were lying just to get drugs.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this is a daily reality.

For us, there is the ever-present assumption that a person, because of race, has to be a drinker and/or smoker. These kinds of assumptions mean you are not caring for the patient, but treating them as a stereotype.

I have been this patient.

I have a brain tumour that affects both my eyes. On one occasion, my eye was bleeding and an ambulance had been called. The paramedic asked me questions about my health, but completely overlooked my brain tumour, despite the fact that I had a folder full of information for health professionals, listing all my hospital admissions and medications.

She kept asking me, Have you been partying? Have you been using marijuana? She told me it was “okay” to admit that. I received this questioning all the way to the hospital.

When I arrived at the emergency department, I was kept waiting for hours, as blood soaked into the towel I had pressed against my eye. No one checked on me. When the doctor finally came for me, he took one look at my bleeding eye, said the words “brain tumour”, and I was rushed into surgery.

I should not have been forced to wait all that time. But the paramedic’s preconceived idea that I was using drugs stopped me getting the immediate help I needed.

She kept asking me, Have you been partying? Have you been using marijuana? She told me it was “okay” to admit that.

As an Aboriginal person living with cancer, I have seen and experienced shocking racism within the medical system first-hand. Although Indigenous people are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than non-Indigenous, they have higher death rates, and when you see how we are treated, this should come as no surprise.

Many Indigenous people complain of hospital staff denying them pain relief, as if they are faking pain to get painkillers, or abusing substances. Add to that, patients and their family members speak of being denied pain relief because Aboriginal people are still wrongly thought to have a higher pain threshold.

The consequences can be fatal.

In 2011, Masaly Mosby, a five-week-old-baby girl, died in Western Australia, after her mother took her to the Broome hospital four times in five days. Could this death have been prevented? Would Masaly have had better treatment if she didn’t come from an Aboriginal community? The case is currently being reviewed by the Coroners Court examining the adequacy of medical care giving.

The case is not an isolated incident. A New South Wales Coroner is currently looking into a discrimination complaint regarding a disabled Aboriginal woman who died in a Sydney emergency department. Another woman from the same facility, the Plain Trees Group Home, also died in similar circumstances at the Campbelltown Hospital in February 2016.

You might think this is all a coincidence, but there is something linking all these cases together: the colour of the patients’ skin.

It is common for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to suffer, both physically and emotionally, at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. This lack of care plays into worsening health outcomes – how can you get better if you feel unwanted and unwelcome in a hospital or at your local GP? Entrenched racism lies at the bottom of the need for better Indigenous health services, Indigenous Hospital Liaison officers, and Cultural Awareness Training for medical professionals.

Indigenous patients need people who know and understand us.

It is not only people from remote and regional communities that have long been demeaned and their culture ignored to the detriment to their health, but Indigenous city folk are also at risk. Many people assume that the Indigenous person, who lives in the city, is devoid of culture, laughing at the idea they also have cultural mores to follow. Spare a thought for the Traditional man in a city hospital who is washed by a female when he has specifically asked for this not to happen - it goes against culture.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak many languages, of which English is only one, but many medical professionals get annoyed and expect them to speak English, and through their own ignorance and bigotry will not try to understand that person. Likewise, doctors who question a person’s Aboriginality can put a patient at risk; for example, not giving appropriate immunisations can put the patient at risk of flu or other diseases.

Indigenous patients need people who know and understand us. We need to be able to feel safe when we go to a hospital. Because, while I am relieved to say that the incident I described turned out alright for me in the end, others have not been so lucky.

Colleen has set up a GoFundMe account to help her continue receiving crucial medical treatment. If you wish to donate, go here.

Love the story? Follow the author here on Twitter: Proudblacksista@ColleenLavelle1 or her blog Proud Black Sista

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Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.