In mid-March, Karla Monterroso flew home to Alameda, California, after a hiking trip in Utah’s Zion National Park. Four days later, she began to develop a bad, dry cough. Her lungs felt sticky.
The fevers that persisted for the next 9 weeks grew so high — 100.4, 101.2, 101.7, 102.3 — that, on the worst night, she was in the shower on all fours, ice-cold water running down her back, willing her temperature to go down.
“That night I had written down in a journal, letters to everyone I’m close to, the things I wanted them to know in case I died,” she remembered.
Then, in the second month, came a new batch of symptoms: headaches and shooting pains in her legs and abdomen that made her worry she could be at risk for the blood clots and strokes that other COVID-19 patients in their 30s had reported.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she should go to the hospital.
“As women of color, you get questioned a lot about your emotions and the truth of your physical state. You get called an exaggerator a lot throughout the course of your life,” said Monterroso, who is Latina. “So there was this weird, ‘I don’t want to go and use resources for nothing’ feeling.”
It took four friends to convince her she needed to call 911.
But what happened in the emergency room at Alameda Hospital only confirmed her worst fears.
At nearly every turn during her emergency room visit, Monterroso said, providers dismissed her symptoms and concerns. Her low blood pressure? That’s a false reading. Her cycling oxygen levels? The machine’s wrong. The shooting pains in her leg? Probably just a cyst.
“The doctor came in and said, ‘I don’t think that much is happening here. I think we can send you home,'” Monterroso recalled.
Her experiences, she reasons, are part of why people of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. It is not merely because they’re more likely to have front-line jobs that expose them to it and the underlying conditions that make COVID-19 worse.
“That is certainly part of it, but the other part is the lack of value people see in our lives,” Monterroso wrote in a Twitter thread detailing her experience.
Here is the thing y’all, because of the particular way I was treated, I know that if I was a thin, white, woman I would have not been treated that way.
— Karla Monterroso (@karlitaliliana) May 14, 2020
Research shows how doctors’ unconscious bias affects the care people receive, with Latino and Black patients being less likely to receive pain medications or get referred for advanced care than white patients with the same complaints or symptoms, and more likely to die in childbirth from preventable complications.
In the hospital that day in May, Monterroso was feeling woozy and having trouble communicating, so she had a friend and her friend’s cousin, a cardiac nurse, on the phone to help. They started asking questions: What about Karla’s