‘Everyone Deserves a Fair Chance at Being Saved’

Remarks by Silas Nwaishienyi ’24

In the latest issue of Regis Magazine, we highlighted Regis’s trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. During the weekend’s proceedings, Silas Nwaishienyi ’24 delivered a speech on racial inequality and healthcare to thousands of attendees. Nwaishienyi, one of 16 students in Regis's IFTJ delegation, discussed how Black Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans are among those who face worse health outcomes because of a lack of research into their care. Read his full remarks, which have been lightly edited.

Good afternoon, everyone, I’m Silas Nwaishienyi from Regis High School in New York City. And first, before anything, I want to give Regis their due shout-out, and I want to shout out my great friends from the Arrupe Leaders Summit that I had this February. It’s a huge honor for me to be on stage today to raise a voice to this pressing issue with such deep roots in our society.

Now, first I want to start with a question: When you hear the words “health care,” what pops into your head? Probably ideas of cures, or love, or compassion from the hearts of doctors, nurses, or first responders you call to on a sick day, right? And I totally understand that. I’m an EMT in New York City, of all places. It takes a lot more than wanting to become an EMT to stay an EMT. But the privilege of being able to look at health care in this positive light often remains a dream for millions of Americans today who have to find the courage to make a call. And, ironically, I’m a lucky example of that.

If I were to rewind to March of 2006, I’d find myself unborn, still awaiting the wonders life has to offer inside my mom’s womb. Now, I couldn’t quite tell you what I was thinking back then, as I’m sure my memories have since left me. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that I wasn’t expecting to be born for another two months. And since I’m born in March, clearly something went wrong. And it did.

Two days before what’s now my birthday, my mom developed a life-threatening heart condition that required her to be rushed to the hospital. But that was all it was described as. See, despite pregnancy being such a common facet of life that you’d think the doctors had everything understood about it, they didn’t quite know what was wrong with my mom. And because both she and I were at stake, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, they had to sign on to this belief that she had preeclampsia, which you’ve probably heard of. It’s far less fatal, it differs drastically in symptoms, and, more importantly, is believed to disappear after childbirth. So, when this quote-unquote preeclampsia began affecting me in the womb, I was delivered two months early into this amazing world. But that’s all fun and games, right? I mean, I get to live, and my mom gets to see me.

Only, she didn’t. She was still having that heart condition that doctors didn’t really have a name for. So what happened to her? Well, she was dismissed from the hospital — without checks to ensure that her heart condition had actually gone away. And because she didn’t have preeclampsia, within the week, she was back in the hospital, in such a bad state that shutting her eyes to rest could have been the last time she shut her eyes at all. I was at risk of losing my mom before I’d even met her.

Fortunately, I was spared of that reality, and I’m sure not without hours of petrification on my father’s part, because she was diagnosed accurately with peripartum cardiomyopathy. But 17 years later, I still couldn’t thank her doctors for that, because they didn’t find it. It was my father, a spectator who didn’t have the same resources as the hospital staff, who had to diagnose her because it was the same chain of illness that killed his mom and stillborn brother three years after he was born.

If it weren’t for the experience that my dad had to face as a child, I would have shared that same reality. So, naturally, 17 years later, I wonder: Why didn’t the doctors know what was wrong with my mom? Because peripartum cardiomyopathy primarily affects Black people, 15 times more than any other race. The textbooks that guided the teachings of these doctors had under-prioritized this illness because it was seen as insignificant. And the reason I know this is because as soon as my mom started recovering, med school students began rushing to her hospital to use her as a study guide, to teach them what their textbooks couldn’t.

I’d like to think of myself as the only potential victim to this system, but in reality it’s riddled throughout American society. Even after the 1960s, when hospitals were first desegregated, all patients of color were treated under the standard of a white patient because they were all who society deemed mattered. And today, it’s clear to see that these inequitable systems still persist, and not just for Black people. Hispanics, Latin Americans, and Native Americans all face worse health outcomes because of a lack of understanding in their care. I see patients every day who are scared, petrified to walk onto an ambulance because they don’t want to leave a hospital worse than when they entered. So, while today we can’t blame anyone sitting around us for the problems of our nation’s past, we can be the ones to change it now for the better.

And that’s why I call out to all of you. We have to realize that health care in humanity is boundless, too. It will never disappear, and if we don’t fix it, its problems won’t end. Whether you feel you have already been affected by this issue or not, I ask you to be steadfast and boundless in your unity of our love of our neighbors and an advocate for an equitable health care system. As you all grow into prominent figures of the spaces you impact, I ask you to lead from a place of love, with understanding and education to this pressing issue so you can engineer your voices for change.

And so to sort of inspire that in everyone, I do have three solutions to offer. First, we can work to make health care more accessible by promoting the services and working to alleviate the financial barriers marginalized people face. For example, directrelief.org works internationally in health aid and directly across the 50 states with their Health Equity Fund to make sure money isn’t the determinant between life and death. You can donate to this site, or petition to your local hospital to make it a partner so that more people can access health care without having to break the bank for it. Second, we can work to diversify workers in health care. For those who want to pursue paths in medicine, I 100 percent encourage you to do so, because it’s been super fun for me. But if you don’t, then maybe you can help make the quality of education better for those who want to pursue those paths. You can work in tutoring, or publish free study resources online, or appeal to lawmakers for better educational funding, because right now 60 percent of kids say they want to become doctors. And while I’m sure that statistic is mildly skewed, we can work to maintain that yield. And finally, I call to you to spread this message in your communities. Racial inequities in health care aren't spoken about a lot, yet their devastating impacts are clear. Bringing this issue to greater stages than this will be the start to both making this issue known and curing it. And then that way, everyone will have a fair chance of being saved.

Thank you.

Posted: 2/23/24