Hinds County,MS 2001
“Remember you’re just an observer”
The ID doctor with the long gray hair and tortoise shell rimmed glasses reminds me
I don’t need reminding.
I know this is her clinic
I know she is trying to help
I am just an observer here
I am just a resident
Just a witness
Jesse James is black
Dark like mahogany
Cheek bones angled just so…like a model really
But he is dying
“Got that AIDS,” he says, matter-of-factly
He is 26
The medicines might’ve worked if he’d taken them right
Not “every now and then” as his mother divulges
Now he sits on the examining table, bones jutting out everywhere
“What hurts you” the doctor says
“Everything” he replies
“And I just keep runnin’ to the bathroom…
Won’t stop no matter what I do…”
“Jesse we need to think about hospice”
“Remember we talked about that…”
“I’m having a hard time remembering anything lately. Mrs.…I mean Dr. Lee…
just tell my mama…she remembers everything”
And she does…the positive test…pregnancy test…27 years ago…how they had to “remove her womb and everything else ” because she wouldn’t stop bleeding… ensuring Jesse would be an only child.
She remembered everything…the first step, the first word, the first day of school…the first clue…that something just wasn’t right…
he was 19 and losing weight and kept getting rashes on his face that just looked funny and then pneumonia and almost dying like that in Jackson Memorial Hospital…
They drove 40 miles to get there…he needed to see the specialist. She needed her baby to live.
The other positive test…
”Yes, it was for sure” “No. they couldn’t tell how long he had it” “Maybe she should talk to him about it”
She had warned him about so much:
“Be careful crossing Fitzgerald road ‘less you get hit by a tractor or somethin’ “
“Don’t swim in Hinds county creek the waters too dirty ‘bound to get all kinds of germs…”
“Pleeeeze, don’t get that fast girl pregnant now…you know I don’t need a baby around here…with me working all day”
“Baby I know it’s the 20th century, but please don’t sass them white folks…Mississippi ain’t changed that much”
Hadn’t warned him about this. This disease that would kill him.
He was disappearing right before her eyes.
Shrinking…folding in upon himself.
Graying…his skin and even patchy areas of his once thick and lush hair.
She remembered everything, but she kept quiet.
And even after she lost her only child she found it hard to say it aloud.
Everyone knew what Dr. Lee’s clinic was for, but it was still a secret in this small Mississippi town where separate and unequal still reigned supreme.
And everyone said “Mrs. James, I’m so sorry about your loss”, and the deaconesses from the church baked cakes and the supervisor from her job made her famous deviled eggs and the pastor’s wife fried chicken and people whispered laughter…as was appropriate for a repass, and everyone was so polite…
But, I wanted to shout because Jesse was younger than me and quite possibly brighter than me…
and now he was dead and that was not OK with me…
And I wanted to scream…and I wanted to sound the alarm…and I wanted to rally…and I wanted to educate about how it’s done up North
…but mostly I wanted to scream…
but I was just an observer.
(used with permission and published in The Country Doctor Revisited, KSU, 2010)
Dr. Bradley-Jennett reflects on her experience in the rural south as a medical student. In small towns all over the US, everyone knows everybody’s business. Sometimes that business includes health problems with a stigma like AIDS (Dr. Bradley-Jennett’s patient), sexually passed infections, or an unplanned pregnancy. Even today depression, substance abuse or the need for Viagra can be embarrassing. Recently, I had a patient ask me to write out her husband’s prescription for Viagra so she could hand carry it to the pharmacy in another town. She didn’t want the local pharmacy assistant, who she’d known forever, to know that my patient and her husband needed it. Sometimes what is known is not discussed, like in Bradley-Jennett’s poem. As a result neighbors can have a passivity about what is: Mr. Jones is an alcoholic and he beats his wife. It’s a given, no one asks if she needs help, or they are tired of her denying that it happens. As a result the alarm and rallying never happens to change the status quo. What have you noticed on your rural rotation about small town nosiness and privacy/confidentiality?