Healthcare Blues

By Rachel Lee
February 2010

Though attention was briefly diverted to January's tragedy in Haiti, the lion's share of headlines that have come out over the last year have concerned the healthcare debate in Congress. In fact just weeks ago Massachusetts voters, in an ironic twist, sent someone who has vowed to defeat the healthcare reform bill to the Senate, as a replacement for long-time healthcare reform advocate Ted Kennedy.

It is a bill that has managed to alienate the left and the right, in all its contortions. Amid the screams of death panels and mandates I started thinking about how health care has affected and will affect blues artists. The first story that came to mind was the story of Bessie Smith’s death.

Born in Chattanooga Tennessee, Bessie Smith was like a Beyonce of her time, except she lived much harder. She was the most commercially successful female blues singer of the ‘20s and ‘30s, a star of film, stage and recording. Smith was the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. When she died 10,000 people turned out for her funeral in Philadelphia.

Bessie was the passenger in a vehicle driven by Richard Morgan, her common law husband, on the night of September 26, 1937. While driving from Memphis to Clarksdale, MS Morgan swerved to avoid hitting a truck. Unfortunately the car ended up colliding with the truck anyway, on Bessie‘s side.

The ensuing events became the subject for the one-act Edward Albee play The Death of Bessie Smith. The play takes part in a white hospital where a dying Bessie is refused treatment and subsequently dies. While the spirit of the play may capture the injustice of the time, Bessie‘s biographer Chris Albertson states that the actual facts of her death were more complicated.

The first on the scene to help were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. Broughton had gone to a nearby house to call an ambulance to take Bessie to a nearby hospital for blacks near Clarksdale. When the ambulance failed to show up Broughton and Dr. Smith decided to take Bessie to the hospital themselves. On the way they were accidentally rear-ended by a couple on the dimly lit road, further delaying Bessie’s treatment.

She was taken to the black hospital in Clarksdale but didn’t survive the next day, succumbing most likely to severe internal injuries. Albertson’s interview with the black ambulance driver who finally arrived and the doctor on the scene revealed that in those days you wouldn’t have even thought of bringing a black person to a white hospital if there was a black hospital nearby.

Would Bessie have lived had she been taken to the white hospital? We will never know. Hence Albee’s play is based on a hypothetical situation where in the segregated South she would have been taken to a white hospital which one might assume would have had better care, if only they chose not to discriminate against her.

In the 1930s civil rights issues were related to race but now in the 2010s the current civil rights issue is based on access to healthcare. Senator Harry Reid stated the relationship with these comments:

Today Bessie would not be denied emergency care at a white hospital under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act passed in 1986. She could not be denied because of age, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, residence, citizenship, legal status or lack of medical insurance, as patients must be treated in an order based on their determined medical needs, not their ability to pay.

The requirements however are that the patient must have:

However, illnesses like diabetes and cancer are slow stealth predators. They can kill if they go undetected, or if treatment is delayed. Citizens of the United States are legally entitled to healthcare when their life is acutely threatened, but not to preventative care that may save them from being in that position.

In Albee’s play Bessie's death was the topic but Bessie was not a character in it. She is dying but Albee gives her no last words. Is healthcare like that? Healthcare is supposed to be about us but we are not even characters in our own play. Even as some of us lay dying we have no last words to say.

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