Hispanics are the least likely racial and ethnic group to see a doctor when they have health problems. That’s according to a study by the United States Census Bureau. There are several barriers that discourage some from that community from seeking medical attention in the U.S.
In a small house in South Bend, a family is getting ready for the Christmas holiday. The tree is up and everyone is drinking something they call “Christmas Punch.” They’re laughing together. One of their friend’s Magdalena Hernandez, asks if I like the punch.
Hernandez is wearing a bright orange shirt with dark purple lipstick and her brown hair is pinned on the top of her head. From her appearance and all the laughter, you’d never guess she has an advanced form of cancer in her bone marrow.
It’s not curable.
She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma around this time in 2017. “I honestly didn’t feel anything, I just asked the doctor to take away the pain that I’m feeling right now,” she said.
But she had symptoms for years before that - like fatigue, weakness in her legs, and sharp pain all over her body she describes as more painful than labor. She went to the emergency room once before and the doctor told her it was inflammation and cleared her to go back to work. One year later, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I told the doctor what had happened the previous year and that’s when he told me I had cancer and that it was advanced and that I didn’t have the care that I should have had,” she said.
She said part of the reason she waited so long to get help was because she didn’t fully trust the American healthcare system.
Hernandez’s story is not uncommon.
Susana Lagunas is a Family Nurse Practitioner at a local clinic and is a Latina herself. She said she sees this all the time through her work.
“Many latinos are diagnosed, especially with cancer, at a later stage, so a more advanced disease at that point. The burden of that is obviously mortality.”
Lagunas said there are many barriers that keep Latinos from seeking medical attention - like language. She used to translate for her family members when they first came to the U.S. Even though most clinics have translator services, she said sometimes it’s over the phone which can cause problems.
“Every time I walk into a room and they looked at me and I look Latina and I speak spanish, they just breathe in relief that somebody’s there and maybe I can be helpful and help them express their medical needs.”
Lack of health insurance is a barrier too - one that caused big problems for Hernandez.
“It was very difficult for me to get the assistance here. There is help and there is assistance, but not for everyone," Hernandez said.
Hernandez wasn’t able to find help in South Bend because of her immigration status so she has family members and friends drive her to Chicago once a week for treatment.
Paul Beltran works at Indiana Health Center in South Bend. He also helped translate earlier for Hernandez. Beltran said Latinos who are new to the U.S. aren’t always familiar with the healthcare system.
“There’s people that come from villages in their home countries where the doctor was a, they would call them the Curandero, which is just a person who knows a thing or two about medicine but it’s just very basic, herbs and those kind of things.”
He said the difference in cultures is just as big a barrier as language, insurance, and immigration status. In Latin American culture, it can be just as important to have a doctor that you connect with personally as it is to have a doctor that knows what they’re doing. Hernandez said that relationship with a doctor is hard to find in the U.S.
“As far as the dignity and respect they can provide, it’s very, very scarce. It’s almost like they wait until you’re on your deathbed before they try to do what they really need to do to save you,” she said.
For Hernandez and others in the Latino community, these barriers have had serious repercussions.
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