DISTRICT HEIGHTS, Md. (AP) — Charles Thomas was unwell but he had no time for rest.
He was on the cusp of a management promotion and a move to Florida to begin a new chapter that would alter his family’s financial future and break the cycle of generational poverty.
Yet, as his family’s prospects improved, concerns about his health grew.
A severe bout of COVID-19 left the 52-year-old weak and in recovery for weeks. His wife, Melanese Marr-Thomas, worried he was pushing himself too hard to get back in the swing of things. Charles was a big man at 6 feet tall and 300 pounds. He struggled for years to get his weight under control.
Later in life, that struggle gave way to high blood pressure and a medley of medications.
In a nation plagued by high blood pressure, Black people are more likely to suffer from it — and so, in the time of COVID-19, they are more likely than white people to die. It’s a stark reality. And it has played out in thousands of Black households that have lost mothers and fathers over the past three years, a distinct calamity within the many tragedies of the pandemic.
It has devastated families like the Thomases of District Heights, Maryland.
Charles had an intense fear of hospitals, needles and doctors, partially because they had, in the past, brushed aside his concerns. He felt doctors were quick to blame any ailments solely on his weight, but slow to listen to his symptoms or examine other causes. He eventually gave up on seeking medical care for a long time because he was tired of feeling judged.
His family had recently found a Black doctor who, for the first time in his life, made Charles feel comfortable —- and most importantly, heard.
“He knew he needed to take better care of himself so we were trying to change his diet and be more active,” Melanese said. “His blood pressure was beginning to come down.”
But then, COVID intervened.
About 56% of Black adults have high blood pressure, compared to 48% of white people. Three in four African Americans are likely to develop the disorder by age 55.
When the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high, it makes the heart and blood vessels work harder and less efficiently, which can lead to significant health issues.
While only 32% of white adults with high blood pressure have their condition under control with medication, the figure for Black Americans is even lower — 25%.
And it’s likely to get worse: By 2060, the number of Americans battling cardiovascular disease is expected to drastically increase. High blood pressure rates alone are projected to rise 27.2%, or from roughly 127.8 million to 162.5 million Americans.
Among white people, the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors and disease is projected to decrease over time. Yet significant increases are projected among people of color, especially Black and Latino Americans.
It is clear that high blood pressure has played a major role in COVID deaths, and especially in the COVID deaths of Black people. Together, high blood pressure and COVID have created a deadly combination: While high blood pressure is listed as a contributing factor in 15.5% of the deaths of white COVID sufferers, the figure for Black victims is 21.4% — the highest of any racial group.
Like many conditions, genetics do play a part. Experts also blame poor diets, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking — risk factors that often exist at higher rates in Black communities. In recent years, more academics and doctors have called attention to structural inequities.
The nation’s health disparities have had a tragic impact: Over the past two decades, the higher mortality rate among Black Americans resulted in 1.6 million excess deaths compared to white Americans. That higher mortality rate resulted in a cumulative loss of more than 80 million years of life due to people dying young and billions of dollars in health care and lost opportunity.
“Until we reach health equity, these disparities are going to be a scar on the health care landscape in the United States,” said Dr. Keith C. Ferdinand, the Gerald S. Berenson Endowed Chair in Preventive Cardiology at Tulane University’s School of Medicine. He emphasized the importance of equal access to primary and specialty care and medications.
“If we don’t do that, then we don’t have a just society,” Ferdinand said.
Since Charles’ death, the family has worked hard together — and in their own ways individually — to keep his memory alive.
For his stepdaughter, Serena Marr, that means getting treatment for her own mental health in the wake of his death, and finishing college.
For Melanese, his beloved wife, that means cherishing his memory and their love.
“I’m spending my life reminding others that he was a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a granddad, a co-worker and a friend to so many,” Melanese said. “He was not a COVID number. He was a person who had hopes and dreams, aspirations.”
For his namesake, Charles Thomas III, that means imparting love and wisdom to his own 5-year-old daughter, who his father adored. It also means supporting Melanese and helping her with his younger siblings.
“I can’t look in the mirror without seeing my dad,” he said. “When I go to school as teacher and I’m correcting my students, I see my dad. When I’m talking to my daughter and my girlfriend, I hear my father. Everything I say. I can hear him. He’s going to live on through me.”
More from this series
This story is part of an AP series examining the health disparities experienced by Black Americans across a lifetime.
Birth — Why do so many Black women die in pregnancy? One reason: Doctors don’t take them seriously
Childhood — Black children are more likely to have asthma. A lot comes down to where they live
Teen years— Black kids face racism before they even start school. It’s driving a major mental health crisis
Adulthood — High blood pressure plagues many Black Americans. Combined with COVID, it’s catastrophic
Elders — A lifetime of racism makes Alzheimer’s more prevalent in Black Americans
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