Jerry Price, manager of diversity and inclusion for Spectrum Health Lakeland, lost 22 friends in a period of just over one year.

 

Mounting Losses of Black Male Friends in Their 40s Makes Man, 46, Ponder the Reasons. His No. 1 Suspect: Long-Term Stress

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. – It was a bad stretch of time for Jerry Price. One very bad stretch. In the 14½-month span from Sept. 26, 2017, to Dec. 12, 2018, no fewer than 22 of Price’s friends around his age died. Except for two he met in college, all came from the small city of Benton Harbor, Mich. Twenty-one of the 22 were men, with the great majority in their mid- to late 40s. Four friends were in their early to mid-50s, and one was 34. All 22 were black. Cultural conditioning might cause many white people who hear of the deaths of black males to assume violence as a major cause. While homicide is the No. 1 cause of death among black males ages 15-34, overall the reality is chronic diseases take a far higher toll among African American males of all ages. A 2018 article in The Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities said the top five causes of death for black men in 2014 were: 1. heart disease (24.8%) 2. cancer (23.0%) 3. unintentional injuries (5.8%) 4. stroke (5.1%), and 5. homicide (4.3%). The article examined death rates of the 15 leading causes of death for black males age 15 and older from 2000 through 2014. The author, social epidemiologist Elizabeth Pathak, PhD, found “significant mortality declines” in that time span for 12 of the leading causes, along with a narrowing of the overall disparity between black and white men. “However,” she wrote, “significant black disadvantages relative to white men persisted for 10 leading causes of death” in 2014.

Black men continue to have the lowest life expectancy of all major ethnic-sex populations in the U.S.

A List of Vanished Friends

Price already knew the cause of death of many of his friends, but for purposes of this story he verified with family members the causes of most of the other deaths. In some cases he could not get verification, but he knew for certain it was a disease, and not homicide, that claimed the friend. Price is the manager of diversity and inclusion for Spectrum Health Lakeland, a health system headquartered in St. Joseph, a predominantly white and prosperous city across a river from the poor and predominantly black city of Benton Harbor. The headquarters buildings sit along the river, and it was in his office there that Price sat down in early December 2018 for an interview.

According to recent U.S. Census data, Benton Harbor has 9,860 residents and is 86 percent black.

He said 16 friends died of preventable, treatable chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart problems and cancer. One good friend was a suicide victim, which Price argues could be in the chronic disease category because he said this friend had suffered for years with undiagnosed depression and mental illness. Of the other five friends, three were victims of violence, including one man who died from complications of disability after being paralyzed from a gunshot wound more than a decade earlier. Traffic accidents claimed two friends. (See the accompanying list.) The 46-year-old Price said all 22 friends—the 20 who grew up with him in segregated Benton Harbor and the two he met in college—had struggled growing up with such problems as inferior housing and low family income. But he said all had received education or training beyond high school, whether they had college degrees or not. And he doesn’t think his friends’ deaths were linked to class status, either.

Coping by Forgetting

The interview for this story came shortly after Price had recorded a video for Lakeland talking about losing 12 friends—11 of whom were men—to death in 12 months. He warned of a “silent epidemic” among black men. “For some reason black men are invisible to health care,” he said in the video. He called it his “charge” and his “call” to help promote “healthy pathways in the black community,” and particularly to “work to ensure black men do not continue dying at a young age.” During the interview, Price recited from memory the way the year unfolded, ticking off the 12 deaths and the reasons for each, and recalling the numbing feeling that overcame him. “I actually stopped posting about death (on Facebook), because it was just becoming too much, too much, saying ‘We’ve lost another classmate,’ ‘I’ve lost another friend.’ “And I wasn’t the only one noticing this. Other friends in our circles were like, ‘This is too much, too much.’ “That year, let’s just call it what it really is: the year of death.” A few weeks after the interview, when Price was asked to help firm up the chronology and verify some deaths, he realized his count was far too low. The list he and some friends came up with counted 22 friends who died in 14½ months.

“I did not realize how much of this I truly suppressed and put in the back of my mind,” he wrote in an email. “It was my way of coping. So it took me a little time to actually sit down and confront the issue mentally myself. For me it is more than just a story to print. In some ways it is looking at my own mortality and realizing I am one of the next in line if you go by averages.”

What His Story Reveals

While Price’s story might seem startling because of the sheer number of friends he lost, he said it simply reveals a fact of life among African Americans. “I think when you really start talking to people in the black community, they can tell you how many of their friends have died at early ages. My story is not some unique, amazing or tragic story. My story is one of thousands in any black community across the country.” Price is a gregarious and immediately likeable man with a beaming smile, a booming laugh and engaging presence. He has many friends and is widely known in the area. (A recent peek at his Facebook page showed 3,979 friends.) And he was president of the Benton Harbor High School Class of 1990. So, in a way, it is not surprising he would get news of the deaths of these classmates right away, or be asked to speak at their funerals. But “the year of death” did underscore for Price certain facts of life about growing up black in America, particularly for men. In the interview, at the beginning of what he hoped would be a long reprieve from the monthly death toll, he talked, among other causes, about the toll exacted on black men because of the tension of straddling the white and black worlds, and how he thinks American health care has largely failed black men.

How It Began

As jarring as they were, the first four deaths in this 14-½-month stretch, which included a car accident and an act of domestic violence, are not where Price chooses to start his chronology. He prefers to start with longtime friend Darnell, whose death the day before Thanksgiving 2017 falls in the category of a preventable chronic condition, the very kind claiming the lives of too many black men too young.

“It started with my good friend, Darnell, who admittedly was having some health struggles, but things seemed to be better. He looked good, he was making those life changes he needed to make. People often say it was an unexpected death, and this was truly that.”

Darnell, Price and another friend talked with each other daily. When they unexpectedly didn’t hear from Darnell, the other two went to Darnell’s house and found him dead. Price said Darnell died of a heart attack caused by congestive heart failure. He was 46. “It was a tremendous loss, personally, but also a wake-up call health-wise,” Price said. “If that was the only death that happened, I don’t think I would have paid attention, because we knew he had some health issues.”

Grim Winter News

Price recalled that the next big blow came in a text message from a friend in Florida. A good friend in that state, Michael, 46, a college classmate, had killed himself. “This was mental illness,” Price said. “He was suffering from depression and, just, the factors of life became too much for him to bear.” Michael was “the wild one” of their group of friends, prone to doing “outrageous things” in public, Price said. He now thinks the behavior was a camouflage. “Now, as we look back and now as we know those warning signs, it was definitely mental illness, severe depression.” While white people had been discussing depression for years, “that was not what we talked about in the black community” in the early 1990s. Michael’s death triggered a sense of foreboding in Price. “That’s when my hair started to raise a little. So now I’m starting to feel, ‘There’s too much death happening around me.’” January brought the death of Eric, 47, from a heart attack. Price got a text message with the news. “It’s starting to feel creepy” as black men, all in their mid-40s, were dropping off. In March, a text message relayed news of Jeremy, who had been living in Indianapolis. He was 45 and died from complications of a blood disease. “So now it’s like, ‘OK, I’m losing all my friends around me. I’m losing all my classmates.’” Of the first cluster of deaths, Price spoke at three of the funerals. “So now not only is it real from a losing-a-friend perspective, now it’s becoming highly personal because I’m one of the people who is charged with talking about their memory and their legacy.”

‘This Has to Stop!’

At one point, Price said: “I remember telling my wife, ‘This has to stop. This has to stop.’ And at that time I wasn’t talking even in terms of health care. I was talking in terms of pain. I’m losing these people, and it was to the point my coworkers knew about it” and were wondering what was happening. “I was almost afraid to answer a phone call, to answer email, because I wholeheartedly expected there was a death.”

It was getting to the point of “Who’s next?”

The painful answer came with the news of Gary’s death. He was gone at 47 of a heart attack. By the time Gregory died on June 1, 2018, at age 49 of cancer, “Literally we were gathering for funerals every month … or some out of town I couldn’t attend.” The drumbeat of death only skipped beats in February, October and November 2018, months when no friends died. March 2018 brought news of three deaths, and September 2018 of four deaths.

No White Friends Dying

A pattern was dawning on Price. “What’s crazy is, at the same time I’m realizing in seeing this happen, I’m not seeing my white friends die. I’m not seeing it. It’s not happening. So there’s a distinct difference in my mind that I’m losing all my black male friends, but I’m not losing my white male friends. Why?

“And I think at that point is when I really had the ‘Aha!’ moment that there is something significantly going on in the black community, that there is a crisis with black men and health care. This is not about gun violence. This is not about drugs.”

Price wondered what was causing these black men to die in disproportionately high numbers. Looking at his own life and those of his black male friends provided some answers. He became convinced what had been happening all these years was the result of how he and his friends had responded, in their own ways, to long-term stressors. “This is about reactions to long-term stress, of how we deal with it, whether it’s unhealthy diet, whether it’s high blood pressure, whether it’s Type 2 diabetes—all of these things I see my friends dying of, or people close to me dying of. These are preventable,” or, “if not preventable, are manageable. And how do we begin to look at this differently?” Price himself has Type 2 diabetes. “I’m in that same danger zone.”

Black Men are ‘Invisible’

Price does not have medical training, but because of his life experiences he was asked in the interview to speculate on what he thought were the top three causes for the early deaths of black men. He thinks the No. 1 cause is “the day-to-day stress of what we do, the two worlds we live in and walk in on a daily basis. You have to make those two match up and bridge together.” He said the category of diet-and-exercise constituted what he believes is the second major cause. “How do we manage in a world that was not set up for us to have access to healthy food at the times we need it? Especially when you get to certain (professional) levels, you don’t have that time.” The third cause is what he sees as the tendency of health care not to reach out proactively to black men, even as he said black men themselves tend to seek health care only when they are sick and not for prevention. The question is “not how we access health care,” but “how does health care access us?” He thinks the U.S. health care system generally does a better job reaching out to other segments of the population, even black women, including ensuring healthy pregnancies to reduce infant mortality. He mentioned workplaces’ health care forums as one such outreach effort. “There’s very little, if any, focus on black men’s health. We’re invisible to health care. Honestly I think it’s because there has not been the research or information pulled forward.” Price said black men have been subject to the wrong kinds of national policies. “Every single major policy that has been enacted, or brought forth, or even passed, around black men, has been from a criminal standpoint and not from a health care standpoint.”

We Must Dig Deeper

Price is involved in Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism (or CGR), a joint project from 2018 through 2020 by The Todman Family Foundation and Spectrum Health Lakeland. CGR is seeking to raise awareness and help close the great gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy between residents of the mostly poor, mostly African-American city of Benton Harbor and its environs and the white areas of Berrien County including, just across the river, Benton Harbor’s far wealthier and mostly white neighbor, St. Joseph. “The easy answer is the mortality rate in African American communities is high because of infant mortality,” Price said. “That’s the easy answer. That is an issue.” In Berrien County, where Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are located, the death rate for black infants is almost exactly twice that of white infants. The local rate mirrors the national gap. Bringing the focus back to men like himself, he said, “But when you dig a little deeper, why are black men 75 percent less likely to have health insurance than their white counterparts? There’s a reason behind that. Let’s dig a little bit deeper. Why are black men 60 percent more likely to die from stroke than others? There are systemic factors behind that.” He was quoting The Black Men’s Health Project for these statistics.

“So when you add in stress, when you add in racism, when you add in bias, these are all things that add in to those numbers. How are these things contributing to the death of black men at an early age?

“It is hard to find a health care clinic in the middle of the population that needs it the most—not just here in Benton Harbor, but anywhere. So if these are your centers of health demographics you’re trying to change, where is that critical piece that reaches into the community, or is already physically present in the community, to address those things?” But access to health care goes beyond proximity to clinics and other health care resources. When an African American seeks out health care and feels disrespected, how likely is the person to go back? Price asked. “So when we talk about access, that’s part of access—knowing you can go in and feel like you are just as respected, that your illness is not being dismissed.”

Calling It What It Is: Privilege

He said “the elephant in the room” is black men are dying at alarming rates from nonviolent causes, exacerbated by lack of access to quality health care. “I think it’s really American privilege, when you get down to the meat core of this issue, it’s the privileged and the nonprivileged. So when you talk about what is built into the fabric of your quality of life, when you don’t have privilege, that fabric is a little thinner, so things fall through it. When you have privilege, those resources are wound and woven tighter, so there is that support system.” Quoting again from The Black Men’s Health Project, Price gave this example: If black men are 75 percent less likely to have health insurance than their white counterparts, or quality access to health care, then “how likely are their young black male children to have it?”

‘How Long Do I Really Have?’

A week before the interview, Price and a friend were talking about another friend who just had a heart-kidney double transplant at 46. “And we thought we were going to lose him,” Price said.  “I think if you talk to any black man he’ll tell you we think about our mortality on a daily basis. We think about how and what we need to accomplish in the time we have to accomplish it in. “At 46 we know we have more years behind us than we have ahead of us. So for us it’s about what do we do in these next 15 years to ensure the quality of life moves on for our children, for our spouses. “It’s unfortunate we have to do that, but it’s a reality … we think about, ‘How long do I really have here, at 46?’ We are already making those plans.” (NOTE: During the interview, Price’s memory of the sequence of deaths sometimes conflicted with the list he later assembled, which was used for this story and the accompanying story. All names are fictitious for reasons of privacy, but the details of age, date and cause of death, when known, are accurate as far as could be determined.)


A Somber Accounting

Here is the list Jerry Price assembled of 22 friends who died in a span of 14 ½ months. For causes of deaths he wasn’t sure about, Price reached out to family members. Some causes he could not confirm. But he said in those unconfirmed cases he was sure that diseases, not homicide, claimed the friends. Price said 16 of these friends died of preventable, treatable chronic diseases. Read on. 

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