Esmin Green died alone
July 3, 2008
There are tragedies that unfold everyday, but some of them are really too much to handle. This is one of them.
The greatest fear that many, including myself, carry with them is that they will die alone.
Esmin Green died alone.
Dying alone usually occurs when the circumstance of the death was unexpected, or when a person is isolated from emotional and social support either by choice or circumstance. In this case, it was both. What makes this case even worse is the intentional neglect and the bad faith all around, such that someone’s death became a fait accompli.
Esmin Green was 49 years old when she died alone in a hospital waiting room with people sitting there, with the hospital staff studiously ignoring her, choosing not to give attention to her overt need for consolation and relief.
She died alone wearing a tired hospital gown, after falling from an uncomfortable chair to lie face down on a dirty floor in a corner.
She died from desperation.
She died alone.
There are many failures here, many to blame. And not just the hospital either.
Somebody decided that to be poor is to be treated poorly; the administrators, physicians and nurses clearly believe it to be true, and the patients come to believe that this must indeed be so. How else can one explain why this hospital has persistently offered among the worst care to its immigrant, working class clients? And so they sit there, with nowhere else to go, until somebody bothers to look their way.
There is the persistent bad treatment meted out by our very own Jamaican (and Caribbean) nurses who take special pride in humiliating and spiting the patients at Kings County Hospital, reminding those who come for care about who is in charge. These are the folks we love to big up, about how OUR nurses leave and come to America and do so well, so much better than those Black Americans. We love to show off about them, yes. We write big newspaper articles about them. But we don’t bother to ask what it is they actually do in places like New York to make their living, or ask about their relationship to our brothers and sisters there.
No, we glad when they come home to do charity work for us, not bothering to ask whether they offer that same charity to other immigrants who they step over and drive past every day on their way to success.
We certainly don’t entertain the possibility that they behave just as bad, if not worse, than they used to at KPH and CRH.
And then there is the denial, and the dismal lack of knowledge and understanding of mental health issues among those who serve immigrants. The pastor of the church that Esmin attended in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Marilyn Ann Johnson, called 911, the emergency phone number for the ambulance and police. Why didn’t she accompany Esmin to the hospital? Why didn’t she ask another church member to stay with Esmin until she got the care she needed? Anybody who lives in NYC knows that the ambulance is bound to take you to the worse hospital, especially when you don’t have insurance money to pay for the care. When somebody is ill, they need to have someone else with them to be their advocate. Sick people can’t fill out forms and answer questions. What about the basic compassion that is required here? Who wants to be experiencing a nervous breakdown and to be alone in a hospital? What is it that was so pressing and so important that she could not have figured out a way to make sure that Esmin was not left alone? Would SHE have wanted to be alone sitting in an ambulance or a hospital waiting room? Esmin is not the first immigrant woman to be mentally ill and need services and can’t get them – from anybody at all.
Where are our community’s advocates? Is only the West Indian Parade and politicians we willing to jump up for? Why has an institution that is located in and serves one of the largest Jamaican (and Caribbean) immigrant community in North America, and where many of our own people continue to work and make their careers, been so neglectful of our people? Why have we tolerated this level of abuse and mistreatment?
And then there is the profound ignorance about mental health among us Jamaicans, and the real costs of migration that are often denied, but are sometimes more expensive than we could have ever imagined.
Esmin Green didn’t just miss her children, as her daughter claims. Esmin was ill, seriously ill. She needed care. She needed to have health insurance to get better care than what was available at Kings County. Her circumstances and employment did not provide such privileges. She needed support, love and reassurance that cleaning old people’s backsides and scrubbing floors was not the only way to attain dignity or a decent standard of living. No amount of praying and singing could help her. She needed professional attention. Nobody was paying enough attention to her.
The fact is, America is a horrible place to be when you don’t have education and connections. Reading between the lines, I can tell Esmin did not have her papers and was living from hand to mouth. Spending eight years cleaning people’s floors, running after their snotty children and sitting up all hours watching someone else’s elderly parent while your’s is probably still living in a tenement back home: there is nothing romantic, honourable or dignified about living this way, no matter how much barrel you send home, how many times you visit Western Union, or how much things you stuff in your suitcase to bring home and show off that you are doing alright up so.
Going insane is sometimes the only way out of the madness, isolation and profound sense of loss of self and community that working class immigrant women are dealing with, especially when they are undocumented, and even that little escape they are denied, because we don’t treat our own too kindly when they go off their heads.
But who is going to listen to these women? Certainly not those waiting back home with their hands held out to receive the goodies: just bear up they say – is only for a time they say – life hard but if you work hard and keep to yourself you will eventually find your way they say – you lucky you get the opportunity to go foreign they say so make use of it. You have to try a thing they say, you never know what might work out. Most times nothing does. But these are the lies that are repeated over and over and over again until they feel true. Until it becomes so important to believe and make them a part of your self that you deny what is happening to your body and soul.
Like Esmin Green, too many women who leave their children in Jamaica and go to foreign to go work for a pittance are dying a slow death. They suck so much salt they bound to get dehydrated, and not a single somebody to offer them a glass of water. And because we refuse to recognize and accept that good mental health is not a given, and like physical health, will deteriorate under horrible conditions, we never ask about how such women attempt to mitigate the isolation, loneliness, the feelings of terror and rage, of helplessness and hunger when far from all that they hold dear. Instead, we tell ourselves and them that it is their burden, their choice, theirs alone to bear. We hear the sadness in their voices, the false assurances, their frequent calls to home with nothing to say, and we still insist that they are alright, that there is nothing wrong with them. they just lonely. Life hard over there, you know. Ah so it go.
Well, Esmin bore her burden, alone. And she died, alone. And what is left to show of her life? Where is the justice in that suffering?
We who are still alive, and suffering, and are still so insistent in telling the story that, after all is said and done, life is really better a farrin, and who insist on misrecognizing and even denying the costs that are exacted by leaving Jamaica to go try to make a life somewhere else, where is our responsibility in all of this? In the meantime, while there are many more Esmin’s in Jamaica and New York, probably preparing to travel as we speak, their deaths will probably not be captured on close-captioned video, will we go on as before, feeding the fairytale, aiding and abetting folks to leave their families back home to go and and toil a farrin for the almighty american dollar, without papers or support, and then to die alone? When will we learn? When will we stop being fooled by the crass materialism and easy lure of TV life, and start asking questions and demanding honest truths of ourselves and each other? When will we start doing better by each other?
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