Supporters share personal stories on racism as a public health crisis

By: - June 25, 2020 12:50 am

Sarina Herman wipes tears away as she talks about her mother’s fight with cancer and how her immigrant status impacted her treatment. Herman testified in the Ohio Senate to support of a bill declaring racism a public health crisis.

Sarina Herman’s mom was dying.

It wasn’t just from the cancer she had, but from the chemo being used to treat it, and the language barrier her health care providers couldn’t surpass.

“There have been times where they had to push her to the back of the line because maybe she didn’t understand English as well or maybe she wasn’t really comprehending what the doctor was saying to her,” Herman said of her Laos-born mom.

Family members like Sarina aren’t allowed to act as translators, and without the ready availability of other translators, Sarina’s mother lacked an advocate.

It wasn’t until Herman’s mother-in-law and other doctors took up the fight that her mother was taken off the chemotherapy that was killing her, and put on an immuno-therapy that started killing the cancer. She is now cancer free.

Herman’s mother is an Asian immigrant. Herman’s mother-in-law is white.

“It stinks that I have to involve the fact that my mother-in-law is white in this case, but if it weren’t for her privilege and her stepping up to help my mom, there would be no way my mom would have got the help she needed,” Herman said.

Personal stories like Herman’s were the major force during Wednesday’s testimony supporting a declaration of racism as a public health crisis in the Ohio Senate’s Health, Human Services and Medicaid Committee. This first round of testimonies was heard last week.

Selena Burks Rentschler’s mother was hospitalized for complications due to multiple sclerosis, for what Rentschler thought would be treatment with fluids and a few days in the hospital. Her mom encouraged her to go home. She left her contact information with hospital staff.

After she hadn’t heard from her mother in days, she returned to the Cleveland hospital to find her mother jaundiced, and her legs and arms covered in blood clots.

“Not one doctor had thought to call me to tell me my mother’s condition,” Rentschler told the committee. “By the time I had any chance to advocate for my mother’s health, it was too late.”

Two days later, her mother was dead.

This experience, tied with experiences of extreme poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and bullying, created the lens through which Rentschler sees the world. As the mother of another Black female and a college-educated Black woman herself, she said it would be irresponsible of her to avoid a conversation about the impact her skin color has had on her livelihood.

“I can’t go for a job without feeling anxious, my heart jumps when I see a police cruiser drive right behind me, I can’t even feel safe getting pizza from a local restaurant without feeling the threat of white supremacy,” Rentschler said.

Shannon Isom, president and CEO of the YWCA of Dayton, testifies on Wednesday before the Senate Health, Human Services and Medicaid Committee.
Screenshot from The Ohio Channel.

Shannon Isom came as president and CEO of the YWCA in Dayton, but also as a Black woman with a daughter learning how to navigate anxieties and systemic issues that Isom herself felt.

Isom’s 19-year-old daughter called her when law enforcement conducted a traffic stop on her. Isom had taught her daughter and son to have their mom on the phone “just in case.”

“For the first time, I realized that the fear and the generations of tears and scary-ness we have for our baby boys, I have for my daughter,” Isom said. “And I realized that not only do I have the fear, but I’ve put it in her, and that has to stop.”

She emphasized the importance of having white voices in the fight against racism, starting with the simple acknowledgement that things need to change.

“I would say that we could have within this (resolution) also a resounding collective voice from the (General) Assembly to say that this is not a Black people problem, that this in our state and in our country is a white people problem,” Isom said. “That in itself would make the space more equitable.”

The rest of the issues had been explained in the hours of testimony the committee, the state, and the country had heard on the matter, she said.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, agreed with Isom in saying there was no need for more talking.

“I absolutely agree with you, we do not need more hearings, we do not need to hear more stories, we need to start acting on what we already know,” Lehner said. “And if anyone thinks for one minute that we don’t know enough to act, think again.”

Committee chairman state Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, said, as is his usual procedure, the committee will have a third hearing on the bill to give the opportunity for any opponent testimony. 

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.