Eric King to Black men: Primary health care saves lives

WHAS-11’s Eric King writes an open letter to Black men: ‘To Prove Black Lives Matter — We Must Examine Our Roles in Preserving Our Own Lives’

An open letter to Black men about primary care

I was 6 years old the first time my mother ran my unconscious, nearly lifeless body into a medical facility — frantic for lifesaving help. I was lucky. I grew up in Bardstown, less than two blocks from my pediatrician’s office. It’s quite likely had that not been the case, I would not be here today. As a kid, I was severely asthmatic, which was compounded by highly sensitive allergies, which would often trigger my asthma.

By age 7, I’d already had a cancerous mole surgically removed from my leg. I still carry the 4-inch scar today. By age 10, in addition to the continuous asthma attacks, which would at times leave me nearly unconscious, I’d undergone another surgery, this time abdominal.

I say these things to serve several purposes. First and most unimportant, I’ve been consistently criticized throughout my 20-year on-air career as being aggressively private. The working theory has been as an on-air “personality” (a reference that I absolutely hate), I had an obligation to open up, at least more so than I have. To be sure, I still find it hard to believe anyone would be remotely interested in how I spend my time outside of work, with whom I spend it or what I think about any random topic. But, and this is my most important reason for writing, I recognize the power of a platform. I always have. That’s partially why I’ve never been interested in speaking just for the sake of being heard. My preference has been to talk only when I have something notable to say. Today, I do.

Black men in the United States suffer worse health than any other racial group in America. As a group, Black men have the lowest life expectancy and the highest death rate from specific causes compared with both men and women of other racial and ethnic groups.

While racial discrimination, high rates of incarceration, unemployment, a lack of affordable health services, poor health education, cultural barriers, poverty, access to health insurance, and insufficient medical and social services catering to Black men all negatively affect the quality of life and health, the most painfully significant barrier — is us. Our willingness to seek regular primary care as a group is not where it needs to be, and we are dying in mass as a result.

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This has to be addressed, not for us, but by us.

I was only 11 when Gary Kennedy died. Gary was my 21-year-old cousin. He had the physique of an Olympic sprinter. By all outward appearances, he was a pillar of health. While playing basketball one evening, he went up for a layup, had a massive heart attack and was dead before he hit the ground. We later learned he had a heart defect that could have easily been detected with a primary heart screening. Gary and his mother did not face any barriers to health care. They were fully insured, living in an area surrounded by top-notch medical facilities to which they had full access.

I was 21 when my grandfather died of prostate, liver and lung cancer. He was a natural athlete, often said to be on the verge of pitching in the Negro Leagues as a young man. Remaining fit and healthy, he spent more than 30 years working in a local bourbon factory. I never once saw him go to the doctor until the year he died. He suddenly became ill, received a terminal cancer diagnosis and died within a few months. As I understand now, regular primary care may have led to early detection, which could have saved his life. He, too, was fully insured with no barriers to health care.

When I was 23, my uncle, the man who raised me as if I were his own son, suddenly passed out in a pool of blood. Days later, he received a stomach cancer diagnosis. Luckily, it was caught at a stage that allowed him to fight it successfully. However, after several stints of radiation, he was scheduled for surgery to remove his stomach. It was then that doctors realized he had several blocked arteries — and his heart was not strong enough to withstand the surgery to remove his cancer. He found himself riddled with cancer and undergoing emergency open heart surgery. In this case, he not only survived, he changed. He’s now committed to regular care and is living a healthy life. I’m beyond grateful for that.

I point all of this out because we as a people can no longer press the notion that Black Lives Matter if we are unwilling to work to preserve our own lives in this manner. The top causes of death for Black men are not incidents with law enforcement. Instead, that list is topped by heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and hypertension. Regular primary care can identify every one of these illnesses.

This is your call to action. Please accept it and act on it. We can no longer accept the loss of generations due to our own inaction. Inaction should be viewed as a self-imposed death sentence.

My commitment to you is to use every platform, connection and resource available to me to press this message as often as possible, in every appropriate venue. With the support of WHAS11, I will produce an ongoing series of stories designed to inform you of the importance of regular care and shed light on some of the resources available in this community to help ensure access to it. That is my commitment to you. My promise to you: I will not fail in the effort, because our community needs you.

All of you.


Eric anchors WHAS11’s “Good Morning Kentuckiana” on weekdays from 4:30 to 7 a.m.

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