Earlier today Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York police for illegally selling cigarettes in 2014 (one of a series of unarmed Black Americans, mostly men, who died violent deaths at the hands of police in various states in the four years leading up to Trump’s election) died after having been in a coma since Christmas Day following a heart attack. I’ve seen a number of people on Twitter and Facebook claim that her death was contributed to her by what happened to her father and by the stress of being an activist: “This work takes a terrible toll on those who do the work despite their wounds. Reliving the pain, every time the families come out to speak, protest, write.”
I was pretty sure that Erica Garner must have had some chronic health condition and according to the BBC report her heart attack followed an asthma attack. She had had another heart attack earlier in the year “after a difficult pregnancy that ended with the birth of her son Eric — named for her father”. From personal experience I know that asthma can kill you regardless of your colour, class or your history of personal or family trauma or lack thereof: someone I know died very suddenly of it ten and a half years ago and he had no such history; he was in his 30s, happily married, living in a nice house with a job he liked. His name was Lee. (I even remember a young girl with no history of asthma dying of it during the hot summer of 1995, when pollution levels were high.) Erica Garner also had an enlarged heart, which can have a number of causes but complications include heart murmurs and failure, blood clots and cardiac arrest leading to sudden death.
I well understand the temptation to blame Erica’s death on the stress of losing her father and then throwing herself into the Black Lives Matter movement, but the truth is that these things at most worsened an already poor state of health. People in their 30s don’t die from broken hearts; that tends to happen to very elderly people after their spouses die (sometimes called “grieving widow syndrome” as it’s usually the man that dies first). A while ago I came across a video in which a woman who had suffered a stroke in her 30s, leaving her blind, blamed her condition on having “cried too much” after a relationship breakdown shortly before, but this struck me as rather unlikely, to say the least. (It’s unusual to see a woman blame a physical health event on her own emotions; they normally have to persuade doctors that their physical complaints aren’t psychosomatic.)
I am going to tell people in the light of the Erica Garner tragedy to look after their health: don’t do things that aggravate health conditions you know about (for example, don’t work in dusty environments without a mask if you have asthma), eat as healthily as you can afford to, don’t be embarrassed to see a doctor if you have a worrying change in your health (I’m talking to the men here in particular), and most of all don’t smoke — it contributes to so many illnesses including cancer (and not just lung cancer) and unlike other recreational drugs I can think of, does nothing else except making your breath and your surroundings stink and dulling your sense of taste. Some (including your doctor) might tell you not to have a child if you’re a woman with one chronic condition or another, but that’s your decision and I know for many women it’s more important than anything else.
But it also reminds us of the importance of public healthcare: people who aren’t wealthy and cannot afford insurance (and especially those with chronic conditions) need public healthcare and they need medicines to be affordable, especially things like inhalers and adrenaline injectors which are the focus for much profiteering. We must protect our health system from those whose sole interest is to make money and for whom curing disease and protecting people’s health is just a means to an end.
Both Lee and Erica were parents of young children who now have to grow up without them. Even if Erica’s son has a strong extended family, two of his close family are already gone. Stopping police violence and holding to account those responsible are vital, but so is guarding people’s health and making that possible by keeping vital medicines and basic care affordable if not free. I do not want to see more deaths like these two.
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