My dad, Timothy L. Pernell Sr., believed in science. But as a Black man coming of age in the Jim Crow South, the path to his career as a research scientist was convoluted, taking twists and turns because of the barriers too often cemented in place by racism.
After a two-week bout with the illness, his heroic story ended. It was unlike what we’d imagined his ending would be — but nonetheless his was a life sealed in triumph.
As a student he excelled, but college proved too high a hurdle for his family in 1959 Richmond, Virginia, so he dreamt of becoming a Navy fighter pilot instead. After taking a qualifying exam at the recruiting station, he was led to believe he failed. Thinking his dreams were dashed, he left Virginia for New York to find opportunity elsewhere — following a migration route that many Blacks traveled. After his departure, when it was already too late to change course, he learned he had one of the highest scores on the test when a different recruiter called his Richmond home and informed his father of his stellar performance.
My dad would tell this story on occasion, but I never imagined as I sat with him in December during a hospitalization for one of his chronic conditions that it would be the last time I’d hear it. Three months later, he contracted Covid-19 and, sadly, his marathon against the odds stopped on April 13 at the age of 78. After a two-week bout with the illness, his heroic story ended. It was unlike what we’d imagined his ending would be — but nonetheless his was a life sealed in triumph.
Though the deceit of racism tried to hijack his destiny back at that recruiting station, by grace and grit, he endured. A decade after moving North, fate landed my father on the grounds crew at the famed Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Through casual conversation among staff, it was learned that my dad had a knack for science and had once worked as a quality inspector.
Miraculously, he went from cutting grass to laboratory assistant and committed himself to self-study in advanced math and sciences. With a crack in the door, he ultimately ascended the research throne to the level of Member of Technical Staff based on the credentials of his work and not his academic pedigree. Though he was self-taught, he stood as an equal to peers with advanced degrees and fought to increase opportunities for others.
We had hoped to celebrate him in his final stretch. He deserved it. But Covid-19 and the ensuing upheaval in our social norms and health care system distanced us from him in his final days and moments, and upended our plans to bury him with family and friends gathered in remembrance.
My mother, Merlene G. Pernell, also faced difficulty in her last years of life, exacerbated by endemic racism. My mom died almost two and half years before my father after a severe bout with Parkinson’s disease. Frequently, I fought for her to have top doctors, to get the latest treatments and to have the best rehabilitative care. Too often the American system of medicine fought against us.
I’ll never forget the night she was rushed to the hospital after falling out of a wheelchair at the private facility where she was living. We later learned she writhed in pain until someone found her nearly an hour later. Yet when she got to the emergency department, the treating physician dismissed us. Said I was probably making more of this than I should be and refused to consider that her pain was excessive for her physical exam. The fact that I was a physician meant nothing to him. I wasn’t his equal.
Because her case wasn’t taken seriously, my mom lived with a ticking bomb in her belly for the next several weeks. Then she was rushed to the hospital again. Where one physician previously failed her, another physician listened and saved her. She was found to have internal bleeding from a traumatic splenic artery aneurysm. And again, grace and tenacity intervened.
But why did my parents need to rely on providence and grit? Why do systems too often fail Black patients and devalue Black humanity? Why did the recruiting station lie to my father? Why did the physician refuse to provide my mother a reasonable standard of care or even have the decency to hear our concerns?
The answer has been laid bare for centuries — laid bare in the barbaric surgeries enslaved Black women endured without anesthesia or their consent; laid bare by the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where Black men were lied to about receiving needed treatment, by the HeLa cells, a key human cell line for researchers stolen as bounty from a Black woman’s body, and by the “Mississippi appendectomies” — unnecessary hysterectomies performed under the guise of medical education — that sought to erase the potential for Black life.
Bloodied by two pandemics, Blacks and other communities of color are in the ring against a chronic and acute opponent. One pandemic has swiftly wrought havoc on our physical health and has strained our social and economic fabric. The other, rooted in American soil since its founding, represents system sickness across every institution and facet of life.
This historical trauma and persistent racism have led to broken trust and obstacles to the participation of Blacks and people of color in clinical trials. It can be hard to believe in science when it has been used as a tool of white supremacy.
To solve our collective way out of these “interlocking systems of racism,” our action must be double-pronged: both forward-leaning and reflective of a solemn past. Undoing it will require socially and culturally fluent partnerships between hospitals and communities of color. For hospitals to become hubs of racial healing, specific anti-racism actions to dismantle health inequities and institutions sharing power with marginalized groups are needed.
Bottom line, solving racism is our collective American responsibility. And for me, it’s also personal. As a health equity advocate, I practice through this lens.
Against this historical backdrop and aware of the systemic barriers that continue to lead to unequal health outcomes, I chose to participate in a Covid-19 vaccine trial. This is part of my fight. Lack of participation by Blacks and people of color reinforces inequities. Without diverse representation in any clinical trial, it is not possible to say whether a given treatment or vaccine will work effectively in that population — yet this is especially important since the pandemic has devastated Black and brown lives disproportionately.
As a way to honor the legacy of my father, who believed in the power of investigative research, and as a preventive medicine and public health physician myself, I volunteered so I could be part of the solution. The decision to participate in any clinical research must be voluntary, so I respect those who choose not to. But having that choice is important. This was me exercising my power.
As a way to honor the legacy of my father, who believed in the power of investigative research, and as a preventive medicine and public health physician myself, I volunteered so I could be part of the solution.
As a Black woman physician in a field where we barely represent 3 percent of all doctors, owning the narrative is crucially important. Ensuring the process follows ethical guidelines and upholds informed consent by being an active participant is the best way for me to walk in accountability.
To date, I’ve completed both rounds of injections, though I don’t know whether I’m in the placebo or active vaccine group. So far I’ve only experienced mild symptoms such as pain at the injection site (as with the flu or tetanus shots), fatigue, joint pain and headaches. Most symptoms have merely lasted a few days, and at no point have I regretted this decision.
Frequently, my father would say: "Follow the data. It will lead you to the answers." Daddy, not only am I following the data, I've become the data, and I hope it will lead us to a solution.