Had it been any day before March 22, 2020, I probably would have said something more intricate and pristine. My words would have been shiny and flattering. I would have smiled more. I may have even told one of the top three stories I keep in my mind’s chamber to charm strangers; the kind of story that starts with a challenge but ends in happiness, joy and redemption.
But it was 402 days later — a year after I became deathly ill with long-haul COVID-19, a medical condition that causes coronavirus symptoms to persist months after the initial viral infection.
I had lost my vision, money, and most of all, my beloved teaching career. I didn’t have any fancy epithets to describe the current state of my health after I had suffered for so long.
All I had was me.
Being asked to testify before Congress during the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s hearing on long COVID was in fact an honor ― one I didn’t take for granted. It’s not every day that a Black woman from Baltimore with a short fade and sassy mouth gets to speak before political officials with enough power and privilege to fund almost anything deemed important in our nation. Currently, there are only 54 Black congressional representatives.
By the optics, I had no business being there.
For a few moments, confusion loomed as I wondered how I had been chosen from all the other patient advocates who struggled more. Those who spoke more eloquently without a lisp or stutter. With less than a week to prepare my written testimony, I was chosen to testify along with some of the most prominent and recognizable medical experts, researchers and leaders, including Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. We were tasked with sharing our experiences and predictions on the effects of long COVID on Americans, science and medicine.
Having this esteemed opportunity to (virtually) sit before a few important white folks, I should have been on my best behavior. But if my appearance itself hinted to anyone on the hearing’s panel that I wasn’t normal or average, my words ended up making that painfully clear.
“Members of Congress would either love me or hate me ― but they wouldn’t forget me.”
I was taught as a child to be seen and not heard, but my truth now follows no rules. I was raised with manners and to have respect for everyone. But as a Black woman raised by another Black woman, I knew the special protocol to follow when I was around more than just a few white people at any given time: I was to smile, nod in agreement, and make them feel as comfortable as possible. As a middle school teacher for five years, I knew professionalism in white spaces required that I master the art of saying the right thing to appease whoever happened to be listening.
Remaining quiet around white people assured that I didn’t risk unnecessary trouble for having an opinion. I was briefed on the hearing’s agenda beforehand, so I knew my audience. Being Black, I also knew my place. I was to be the “diverse” face in the crowd talking about my symptoms and following prompts when I was allowed to speak.
I knew, looking into the sea of faces across my laptop’s screen, that I was one of the few Black people and women there.
I cared about that. I just didn’t care enough to create a façade of who I was supposed to be just because I was speaking to people I had watched on television and studied over the course of my adulthood.
Long COVID had destroyed and devastated my life with such ferocity that I didn’t have the energy to play “politics.”
Creating a reputation as one of the few Black female patient-led advocates before the hearing, I made the difficult decision early to break every rule I learned about making white people feel good. I wasn’t going to censor myself or my experience to accommodate anyone.
Members of Congress would either love me or hate me ― but they wouldn’t forget me.
Living with COVID-19’s chronic, disabling evil twin, long COVID, quickly taught me to adopt one-hit-wonder Bone Crusher’s mantra of being “never scared.” With only five minutes on the congressional shot clock, I had no time to be grammatically or politically correct. I had to send a message that was loud and clear. My words, laden with a Southeast D.C. accent, needed to paint a picture of my life and the lives of others I had met over the last year.
“I am now a poor, disabled, Black woman, living with long COVID.”
Point blank. Period.
And long COVID, along with a discriminatory and broken health care system, were the culprits.
Saying it another way would have been polite, but it would have also been, as my Mama used to say, “a bald-faced lie.”
My testimony wasn’t designed as a pretty, palatable fairy tale. It was laced with details of racist, sexist doctors who dismissed me even while I shared long lists of long COVID symptoms including fatigue, blindness in my left eye, migraines, psychosis and paralysis throughout my body. I couldn’t glamorize being hospitalized for over a week, crying and begging doctors to consider that the burning brain I complained of was actually occipital neuralgia — a painful condition that injures the nerves in the brain, neck, back and spine that can be induced by a coronavirus infection. I didn’t reimagine spending all my money on medical bills, copayments and prescriptions.
All of these events actually happened.
I had to tell my truth, but I needed to do something more — tell the truth.
“As we made new discoveries on long COVID last May, the national media tended to do what they always do — put white, affluent women at the forefront of news stories.”
I didn’t want these officials to be fooled — I didn’t wear my favorite dress and pearls to impress them. I wore them as a reminder to myself that although I am no longer a classroom teacher, there is still something affirming, supernatural and confident living inside of me that is now educating my community and nation about an illness that threatens to disable up to 30% of Americans who have had COVID-19.
I dared them to look closer at me, well-dressed and outspoken, with a now-empty savings account and a misaligned spine. My tone carried the wounds of my new disability, the one no neurological tests would accurately show; the kind that silently ate away at my brain and ability to effortlessly teach my students how to write organized sentences and essays.
At that moment, I could not spare panelists my disdained account of being one of the first and few Black women to publicly speak about the dangers of long COVID in underserved communities. During the height of the pandemic, Blacks were twice as likely as whites to die from the coronavirus. And, like me, many other Black people were receiving false-negative test results with lingering symptoms. But no one was studying the effects that the long-term lasting health effects would have on Black families, communities and income.
As we made new discoveries on long COVID last May, the national media tended to do what they always do — put white, affluent women at the forefront of news stories, intimating that they were the only ones who were affected.
When I decided to give my first interview in The New York Times, I sought to change the narrative of who became ill with long COVID.
I knew my testimony was powerful — I was neither white nor affluent. Showing whom this virus affected didn’t get much more obvious than that.
I testified alone, but I mentioned the brilliant, insightful and remarkable Black women who suffered alongside me. I openly expressed what we needed: doctors who believed that we had been infected with COVID-19 even if PCR tests could not prove it, employers who would cut through red tape when we presented our illnesses, and disability benefits that allowed us to pay our bills. And we needed all of these things now.
I thought of the stories that broke my heart even as my own life was falling apart around me. And I allowed those women to sit with me even though they weren’t physically in the room. I ached for Cynthia, a new friend who had been racially profiled at local D.C. medical facilities while trying to be treated for COVID-19. And Candace, who was gaslit for months after doctors told her that her monthslong symptoms were in her head. And Netia, who made the difficult choice to leave her STEAM nonprofit organization and home in Boston to move in with her mother in Florida after suffering a series of seizures that doctors still don’t know how to treat.
Leiah Jones was there, too — in spirit. Before her death, the bright young woman wrote her own obituary as a testament to her compassion for others burdened with this condition and a haunting reminder that America’s health care system never moves as fast for Black women as it should.
I told all of our business because I had no choice. Who else would?
No matter how many times white people have profiled me for their stories, there is no one better suited to tell my story than me.
Riddled with crippling brain fog and an overactive nervous system hours before my testimony, I considered canceling my appearance. Then I remember that my Mama had recovered from a stroke 30 years before that moment.
I may never fully recover, but I will always be “Sandra’s daughter” — strong, resilient and persistent.
Vice President Kamala Harris asked us to consider the health disparities COVID-19 had revealed — and that Black women had faced before the pandemic.
I wanted to be proof that the women she described do, in fact, exist.
We are not an illusion.
Maybe my truth will help to set all of us free. And what I learned after my testimony — with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) calling me “passionate” and others praising my boldness — is that many congressional members and leaders were interested in my truth because it was theirs, too. For over five hours, they shared stories of hopelessness as they watched children, close friends and aides who had become disabled from long COVID.
Maybe this will lead to more diverse and inclusive research opportunities for Black people with long COVID. Or repurposed medications that will aid in treating the growing list of comorbidities that come with the condition — diabetes, mast-cell activation and hernias. It might be time to provide funding to restructure abandoned buildings in low-income communities to offer low-cost or free medical and mental health services to Black long COVID patients and their families, given that most post-COVID clinics cannot support the current patient population that needs care.
Following the hearing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would soon release guidelines for doctors and patients with long COVID. The CDC is expected to include symptoms and testing measures that better tell our bodies’ stories of the battles many of us have been fighting since early last year. This guidance will validate patient experiences and aid in properly coding and billing insurance companies.
It’s a step in the right direction after many patient advocates and support groups demanded these changes months ago.
How much so remains to be seen as America’s most trusted and cited health agency prepares for one of its greatest challenges yet — providing safe, equitable and timely health information to all long COVID patients and their health care teams.
“I am among Black women who are now unemployed, homeless and depressed with broken bodies.”
Congress didn’t need to hear me tell another story of victory — fought and won. Long COVID is a battle I’m still fighting. And my life — and pockets — couldn’t afford to lie about that.
Chimére L. Smith is a middle school English teacher in Baltimore. In March 2020, her life changed after she was infected with COVID-19 and suffered with the long-term effects of long COVID. Since June 2020, she has used her involvement in grassroots long COVID support groups and strong media presence to educate the public on the importance of including Black people in Long COVID research and treatment. Smith has also appeared on MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin, PBS NewsHour, in The Washington Post, and Medium. She is now acting as a Black long COVID patient consultant for nonprofit organizations and federal agencies.