Tales from the ER: A Review of “Living and Dying in Brick City”

Dr. Sampson Davis's new book sheds light on the healthcare crisis in inner-city neighborhoods in particular and the black community in general.

During my recent trip to the ER, there was a young girl also waiting to be seen. As it turned out, she swallowed a Lego and her mother had promptly brought her to the ER. I had heard stories like that before coming from friends who work in the medical field, but I’d never actually seen one before. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard the young girl explain to the doctor how she’d swallowed the Lego. Soon after, she went home, seemingly fine following her gastronomical adventure. If only all the stories coming out of the ER were so happy.

My incident came from the perspective of a patient, but what stories would an ER doctor tell? How interesting, or unhappy, would those stories be, especially told by someone dedicated to improving the health of others?

This is what I found in Sampson Davis’s book “Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home. Davis is a native of Newark, NJ, and former ER doctor at the famed Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, so he has experience in telling the tales of life in the ER. Stories about healthcare in an inner city hospital that are heartbreaking, challenging, shocking, and hopeful. Stories that provide a snapshot of healthcare practices in the African-American community.

The book begins with something familiar, gunshot deaths of African-American males. As a matter of fact, most of the subjects in the book are familiar. There are issues and problems that we see among our brothers and sisters, friends and coworkers. From the perspective of an ER doctor we see domestic abuse, AIDS and HIV, drug addiction and obesity.

When I began this book, I thought it was another tale of how our young African-American males were dying too soon, but it opened up a broader, and more surprising look at African-American health care, and, in most cases, mortality. It covered how we as a race are dying too young, and more than that dying from preventable conditions. I found myself wondering how medical professionals deal with the grief of watching people needlessly die from treatable conditions.

The relationship between the medical profession and the African-American community is a strange, if not strained one. Even though more in our community are seeking medical help, many still do not trust doctors. Older African-Americans, probably from memories of the Tuskegee Experiment, are particularly resistant. Davis covers this phenomenon in the book and the challenge that comes along with distrustful patients.

He also covers another aspect of that strained medical relationship: those who take advantage of the system. He shares stories of patients who are not facing any real medical emergency but come in to be seen in the ER. These stories were as hard to read as the stories of AIDS and obesity, mainly because these people are using resources that could be truly helping someone else.

Despite all of this, the book is not all despair. Davis provides educative information at the end of each chapter, which is an important part of improving the relationship between the medical profession and African-Americans. This book drives home the point that people of color lack the information needed to make proper decisions. Unless we become informed about our health and take active part in our care, we will continue to see unnecessary deaths.

This is a timely conversation given the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act. Soon, millions of Americans will have access to medical care, but the lingering question is how many of them will take advantage of it. How many will miss out on care because they don’t understand the law or how it benefits them?

Although it isn’t explicit advice, Davis provides a helpful tip in the book on improving the lives of those around us by reaching out. He shares how he makes time to mentor and encourage those desiring to enter the medical field and the impact taking the time to reach out someone makes. Investing in the lives of others produces beneficial results. It can be something as small as encouraging a friend on a weight loss journey or making sure a family member has followed the doctor’s recommendations. These kinds of conversations not only hold people accountable, but it shows they care.

But none of the problems Davis discusses in his book has one simple solution. Instead, it will take education, conversation, and care to improve the health of the African-American community. Reading “Living and Dying in Brick City” could be the first step in healing our community.

About the author, Terri J. Haynes

Terri J. Haynes is an Army wife, homeschool mom, and freelance graphic artist. A storyteller at heart, her novel, Love Simplified, was released August 2012. She holds a master's degree in theological studies and a certificate in Creative Writing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children. More of Terri’s musings, writings and random thoughts can be found at terrijhaynes.com or on her blog inotherwords.terrijhaynes.com.
  1. On a positive, as an ER worker of many years, I saw firsthand how many of my coworkers were among the least racist people I knew. A lot of Whitepele just don’t know any Black folk, and so assume the stereotypes are true. ER workers see Blacjs everyday, even in predominantly White areas.