“When someone lives in poverty they are invisible,” said actress, author, and human rights activist Viola Davis, during her keynote address at the Evernorth Outcomes client event in Orlando, Florida, where she shared her personal story of growing up in poverty, and challenged the audience to do all they can to ensure that health care becomes a basic human right for everyone.
Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, said that through her own health care experience she has learned that prevention, access, care, and empathy is off the table when an individual doesn’t have financial stability. She recalled a story her mother – Mae Alice Davis – told her. When Davis was born she had a severe vitamin D deficiency among other problems, and doctors told her mother that she would never develop normally. She was offered some very aggressive experimental treatment, which Davis’ mother refused.
“The tragedy in all of it, is that I got this story from my mom and I still don’t know what was actually wrong with me,” Davis shared. “The one thing my mother did know was that when the doctor was looking at her he had no respect. He saw her as a poor, uneducated Black woman. And yet, something in her spirit said ‘you can’t do that to my baby.’”
Davis’ mother took her out of the hospital – and without any treatment at all, Davis recovered and developed normally.
Lack of resources, education, financial stability, and health care access all contribute to poor health
Davis spoke to the fact that people in poverty – herself included – do not have access to the resources they need to stay healthy. The one thing she wishes she knew as a child is that all the shame, rage, domestic abuse, alcoholism and the feeling that no one cared was all related to mental health and all contributed to her overall well-being.
“I wish I had known that if I fast forward to the future, there were going to be people who talk about this,” she said.
Davis grew up in an area where access to care was limited if you didn’t have the financial means to support it. There was one health center, which she said a group of poor women fought to get. But it wasn’t adequate care – and because of that her chance of healing and self-care were out the door.
The town also faced food insecurity – with one supermarket that was quite the distance from Davis’s home. “We had to haul it there with six kids,” she said. “All of these things [like the lack of access, limited finances, lack of education, and awareness] swell together and say you are not worthy, and that these people who can help you, they have the power, and that destroys you.”
According to Davis, financial stability gives people options and choice. For those who are struggling to make ends meet, you tend to go and see the doctor once a condition has gotten out of control, or when there’s an emergency.
She shared a story about her father, who had to walk four miles to the emergency room for severe pain, only to be turned away because he didn’t have a means of paying for his care that day. Sometime later he had to have emergency surgery to have his gall bladder removed because it was infected.
“Health care is not just about money, it is about love,” she said. “It is about empathy and wanting your fellow man to be healthy.”
Davis asked the audience to imagine what they would do if they didn’t have the financial means to care for a parent with dementia. The costs are high, she said, when you are trying to get someone into a facility where they can get the care they need. Add to that the costs of other ailments as we age, such as podiatry, the need for medication, and more – and it’s easy to see that there are many factors that influence a person’s health, but financial stability tops the list.
“All these things need to be thought of when treating people,” Davis said. “All of it is the big wall that keeps us from having a life. Health care shouldn’t be a privilege.”
Davis has a positive outlook on the future of health care. She believes there are enough good people in the world who can change the narrative. “It takes just one voice that becomes a seed to a larger crop that can change minds,” she said.
Social connectedness is a key factor in resilience
For part of her keynote address, Davis sat down with Dr. Vontrelle Roundtree, associate medical director at MDLIVE, to talk about how she overcame the poverty she was born into and became the successful woman she is today.
According to Davis, she is the exception, not the rule, and most people don’t make it out.
“The reason I sit here today is due to the power of the people who loved me and who stood in the gaps: Teachers, strangers, sisters. You can’t just go at it alone. I was too engulfed in a lack of self-worth. You need other people.”
Davis pointed to the fact that suicide is up and said that this is because of a lack of connection and belonging that people feel. The fact that there are so many new ways to disassociate and disconnect nowadays only exacerbates the problem, she added.
“I made it through because of the belief in myself, and also because of other people’s belief in me,” she said.