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“This is how Black people get killed.”
These are some of the final words of Susan Moore, MD, a family physician in Carmel, Indiana, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on November 29. But even her training as a medical doctor could not spare her from what she believes was the systemic racism she endured while fighting for her life at Indiana University Health Hospital in Indianapolis. She died last Sunday
at age 52.
A Jamaican immigrant who came to the United States in the early ’70s with her family, Moore was an industrial engineer at 3M for nearly a decade before she entered the University of Michigan Medical School, where her family says she was an honor student. A medical school classmate remembered her as “kind, hard-working, brilliant, and generous.”
A single mother, Moore was the sole support of her two parents who suffered from dementia and who lived with her and her 19-year-old son, Henry Muhammed, a freshman studying engineering at Indiana University. Friends, like Kimberly Knox, who has known Moore since their college days, said she was a phenomenal doctor who loved practicing medicine and helping people. “She was a very studious, caring person,” Knox said. “She just lit up when she talked about medicine, about her son and about her parents. And she always advocated for her patients and made sure they got the right care.”
Moore said her treatment at the hospital had gotten so bad that by early December she posted a video on Facebook, begging fellow doctors to help save her. Sitting in a hospital bed with a nasal cannula in her nose, she catalogued a long litany of complaints about the poor care she received. And because she was a doctor, she knew better.
She had to beg for remdesivir, the antiviral medication used to combat COVID-19, because her doctor initially claimed she didn’t qualify for more than two doses of the medication. “She knew that two doses were insufficient for her treatment,” said Linda Burke, MD, an ob/gyn in Orlando, Florida, who is in a private Facebook group with some of Moore’s colleagues. “The fact that she had to argue for it is shameful.”
In the video, Moore said her doctor also refused to give her narcotic painkillers, despite her excruciating pain; she noted, “all I could do is cry.” When a subsequent CT scan revealed she had fluid and new clots on her lungs, and swollen lymph nodes in her neck, he finally relented but it took another 5 hours before she got any relief. “He made me feel like I was a drug addict, and he knew I was a physician. Why do I have to prove that there’s something wrong with me in order for my pain to be treated?” she asked plaintively in the video. “If I was White, I wouldn’t have to go through that.”
Evidence suggests that Moore’s anger was justified. Studies, including one by University of California San Francisco researchers in 2016, have consistently shown that Black patients are half as likely as their White counterparts to receive prescriptions for narcotic painkillers.
Moore worried that posting the video would backfire, but she was pleasantly surprised at the hospital’s response, according to Knox. From her hospital bed, Moore was able to advocate for herself, and went up the chain of command to file a complaint with the chief medical officer of the IU Health System. He assured her that her concerns would be addressed, that there would be diversity training, and that hospital administrators were working on getting an apology from the doctor who she believes treated her so poorly.
Moore’s care did improve, and she was subsequently discharged from the hospital. “She just didn’t want to be in that hospital,” said Knox. But less than 12 hours later, her condition rapidly deteriorated — her temperature spiked to 103 °F (39.4 °C), her blood pressure dropped to 80/60, and her heart was racing at 132 beats per minute. “These people were trying to kill me,” Moore later noted in a Facebook entry about the staff at IU Health. “Clearly, everyone agreed they discharged me way too soon.”
She checked into another nearby hospital, St. Vincent Health Center (where, as Medscape Medical News previously reported, Black pediatrician Chaniece Wallace died in childbirth in October). Moore had developed bacterial pneumonia, as well as COVID-19 pneumonia, and her last Facebook entry indicated that she was being moved to the ICU, where she remained on a ventilator for 10 days. Early on the morning of December 20, she died. Her son, Henry, who was allowed in the ICU, was at her bedside.
Alicia Sanders, MD, a physician colleague of Moore’s, told Medscape Medical News that she started a GoFundMe campaign “to ensure that Dr Moore’s family’s immediate needs were met (food, shelter, bill payment). Her family and close friends are now making sure Henry, her son, will be taken care of for years to come.”
A representative of IU Health said they were sad to hear of Moore’s death, but could not comment on a specific patient. “As an organization committed to equity and reducing racial disparities in healthcare, we take accusations of discrimination very seriously and investigate every allegation,” a hospital spokesperson said in a statement. Still, “we stand by the commitment and expertise of our caregivers and the quality of care delivered to our patients every day.”
Would Susan Moore still be alive if she’d had different care? It’s a difficult question to answer. But Black Americans are infected with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of White Americans, and are twice as likely to die from the virus, according to an August 2020 report from the National Urban League, which is based on data from Johns Hopkins University.
“The delays in her treatment and her inappropriate discharge because she was so frustrated,” Burke said, “could have made a significant difference in her outcome.”