Detroiter Keith Gambrell opens up to The ‘Gander about the loss of his grandfather and father, plus his own battle against the coronavirus.
DETROIT, MI — One by one, Keith Gambrell is losing his family to the coronavirus. Time after again, his family was turned down for treatment in their hometown of Detroit.
It started on the night of April 5, when his grandfather died from the virus. Just six hours later his father, Gary Fowler, died.
Gambrell believes his family might have had a fighting chance with access to medical care. But his dad was turned away three separate times.
“The last week of his life, he slept sitting up because he couldn’t get enough oxygen,” says Gambrell.
That’s where Gary Fowler was discovered by his family. Sitting in his recliner, hoping to ease the burden of drawing breath.
According to Gambrell, his father was aware that he had been exposed to the coronavirus.
“My grandfather was sick and my parents were taking care of him until we went to the hospital,” he says. Once admitted to Henry Ford Hospital, the elder Fowler tested positive for COVID-19. Then his son, Gary, started to experience similar symptoms.
Passed Up and Bounced Around
With his grandfather now on a ventilator and his father complaining of coronavirus symptoms, Gambrell was concerned that his father had contracted the virus too. He encouraged him to seek medical attention.
“I know for sure my dad would have gotten the test that he needed [if he weren’t Black],” Gambrell says. “They just pushed him out the door and told him he had bronchitis. They gave him antibiotics.”
That was at Beaumont Hospital’s Grosse Pointe campus. Garmbrell says that his father informed staff that he had been in close contact with a patient who was currently on a ventilator and had tested positive for the virus. He also presented with a fever and a cough. He was never tested.
Days later Gambrell took his father to Detroit Receiving Hospital where he says patients are screened outside before being granted entry to the emergency room.
“My dad walked up to the nurse and said he had trouble breathing, a dry cough, tightness in his chest and a fever that won’t break,” he says.
Gambrell and Fowler were told to go to Henry Ford Hospital if they suspected a coronavirus infection. Receiving said they were not best equipped to help. The hospital has no record of Fowler ever being there, but he never made it through the front door. They moved on to Henry Ford Hospital where Fowler was seen and discharged on the same day.
“The discharge paper’s description of the visit was ‘COVID-19 concerns and bronchitis,’” Gambrell says. Henry Ford did not test his father for the virus either.
One week later, Gary Fowler was dead. He was 56-years-old.
From Bad to Worse
Gambrell says that they were not taken seriously by hospital staff because they are Black. His concerns deepened when his mother became ill too. They hadn’t even had a chance to begin mourning yet.
“That night, around 8, my mom gets a fever of 101 [degrees],” he says.
Gambrell took his mother to the emergency room that night where they waited in line behind a woman who complained of possible food poisoning. She was taken to triage immediately. She was also white.
“My mother had two prescriptions to be tested for COVID-19,” he says. “One from the family doctor and another electronic one from a family friend who is a doctor.”
Gambrell says that hospital staff claimed that there was nothing they could do for his mother. She was sent home with instructions to isolate herself as if she were infected, to drink fluids and to take Tylenol for the fever.
“My mom was breaking down right in front of my eyes,” he says.
Once again, Keith Gambrell took a parent to Henry Ford Hospital. This time, she was taken to the coronavirus wing where she tested positive. Soon, she was on a ventilator too. Miraculously, she was off the machine in 2 days, then discharged.
“I was afraid that they sent her home too early,” he says. “When I took her back, we found that she’d developed a blood clot in her lung.”
A Terrifying Family Affair
Eventually Gambrell, his siblings and their children were tested out of an abundance of caution. All were in close contact with Gambrell’s parents before they were hospitalized. Three of the 7 family members received positive test results a week later, but not before another family member was turned away by a local hospital.
“My little brother, Ross, started having symptoms too. Henry Ford didn’t test him but they said he had pneumonia and sent him home,” he says.
Wednesday was Gambrell’s turn at bat in the Henry Ford emergency room.
“[I remember] my dad told me his lungs felt like concrete,” he says. “And my mom said it felt like she had a knot in her back. I felt the same knot in mine.”
He was diagnosed with pneumonia and discharged to start his quarantine over at home.
“It’s still so confusing and unreal. They just push us out the hospital and wait for us to die at home with our families,” he says.
Black Americans make up 14% of the total national population and Michigan’s racial makeup is about the same, In Detroit, however, Black residents account for 79% of the city’s population. Even so, Gambrell says there are systemic problems with racial bias in metro Detroit’s healthcare system. And he’s uniquely positioned to make that kind of assessment.
Black Americans are dying at rates almost 300% higher than white Americans. As The Washington Post reported, systemic and systematic issues throughout economic, educational and housing opportunities contribute to the disparities. The Atlantic published a controversial headline that said “Black people are not to blame for dying of the coronavirus.” Gambrell and his family continued to seek help but never received it adequately.
The family is now focused on regaining their strength and grieving their losses. A GoFundMe campaign was established to help them through this incredibly difficult time.
On Monday Lt. Gov. Garland Gilchrist announced a new task force that will examine racial disparities in coronavirus infection rates, treatment and after effects in Michigan’s communities of color.
Beaumont and Henry Ford Hospitals were contacted for comment; neither was available by publication. Detroit Receiving Hospital says “there is no record of this individual coming to Detroit Receiving Hospital for treatment of any kind.”
Trump Lacks a Plan, and That Has a Cost
Gambrell’s story shows the dangers of systemic bias in medicine. Medical bias is an epidemic all its own in America and has a wide range of dangerous impacts on marginalized communities.
“We’re doing everything in our power to address this challenge. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s terrible,” President Donald Trump said during a White House briefing.
But addressing that challenge doesn’t seem to have manifested in any actions.
As the Hill notes, the Trump Administration hasn’t even released information on the national breakdown of cases and deaths by race. All the data presently available comes from states.
And the challenge goes a lot deeper than just the coronavirus. It draws from systemic bias and environmental racism.
“There are a number of negative biases that physicians need to overcome,” reads commentary in The American Journal of Medicine. “The first one that comes to mind is bias based on stereotypes of a given racial, ethnic, or sexual orientation group.”
Because the coronavirus is impacting Black communities harder than others nationwide, as the New York Times reports, that bias in medicine can be calamitous. Underlying health problems in the Black community are exacerbating the dangers posed by the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top coronavirus expert on the White House’s task force on the pandemic, noted that the higher rates of infection and death in the Black community result from underlying conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma in marginalized populations.
“It’s very sad. It’s nothing we can do about it right now except to try and give them the best possible care to avoid those complications,” Fauci said.
The ‘Gander previously reported that one major factor in the reason Black communities are disproportionately affected seems to be related to environmental racism — that areas with high atmospheric pollution also tend to be areas where Black people live. This can, for instance, be directly linked to the higher asthma rates in those communities.
So with systemic racism making infection rates higher among Black people, the dangers presented by medical bias against taking Black patients more seriously are profound.
“Besides learning the huge volume of medical pathophysiology, diagnosis, and therapy, all physicians and health care staff need to search our personal attitudes about others in order to identify our conscious and unconscious biases,” read the Journal of Medicine commentary, “And then, we need to develop a professional attitude toward these patients that recognizes the worth of every individual regardless of their physical or other identifying characteristics.”
So, what’s the result?
American Public Media reports that of the 35 states and D.C. that are reporting data broken down by race, Black coronavirus patients die around 2.5 times more often than Asian, Latino or white patients. Put directly and starkly, if Blacks were dying at the same rate of whites, 6,400 of the more than 10,000 Black victims of the coronavirus would still be alive today.
Even more alarmingly, APM found that the disparity is rising.
And of all those states, Michigan had the second highest rate of Black deaths per 100,000 residents. As Keith Gambrell knows all too well.
The ‘Gander’s Katelyn Kivel contributed to this report.