Edenton NC is arguably one of the most picturesque towns that you’ll ever see. You’ll find sprawling waterfront properties, large overgrown trees, and quaint little shops. What you won’t find that much of is young black doctors in private practice. As a native of Edenton, Dr. Earic Bonner is a rare find in a town that hardly ever sees its black community members take an active role in the health and wellness of its people.
Dr. Bonner completed both his undergraduate and graduate studies at HBCUs, with his undergraduate studies at Livingstone College and his medical studies at Meharry Medical College. Today he works in Internal Medicine in a private practice affiliated with Vidant Hospital. He is also the Regional Medical Director for the Chowan/Bertie/Perquimans County area, as well as the Medical Director for Ambulatory quality and patient safety for the Vidant system. In addition to those roles, he is also a faculty member at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, and works on community committees when they need a medical perspective in that region
When Covid Hit…
“When white America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia”
What most people don’t realize is that most doctors spend a lot of their time outside of the office researching and learning about new developments in medicine. According to Bonner, there is a huge learning curve in regards to the knowledge that you have the day you leave medical school and the knowledge you have every day as a practitioner. In order to keep up with medicine and the speed of science and technology, it’s essential for physicians to reserve an appropriate amount of time to research.
Bonner says that when Covid hit, he spent most mornings reading Medical Journals and news updates in order to keep up with the ever-changing nature of Covid. “I haven’t had much of a personal life for the last 9 months”. Between his regular practice, time spent with residents at ECU, and keeping up with the disease and new protocols, most of Bonner’s time is devoted to being a part of the solution that will save more lives.
Dr. Bonner explains that physicians and others who consider themselves lifelong students of science and medicine jumped at the chance to learn as much as they could about the virus. This was something that they had never experienced, but it was also something that they signed up for when they made the choice to go into the medical field. It makes them a part of history, and a possible part of the solution of treatment protocols that could save people’s lives.
One of the struggles of managing Covid in his specific area has been separating the medical side from the political side with Covid. Bonner operates in a very politically driven area. Trying to get people to understand the severity has been one of the biggest struggles; even within his own family. Cases in the Edenton area didn’t start to emerge until pretty late in the game. Larger cities had already started to feel the effect much earlier; with most cities strictly enforcing Covid-related protocol in March. But in the Edenton area, the first case was around May, and the first Covid-related death wasn’t until June or July. The absence of the virus emerging locally made it harder for people to grasp the concept of what was going on. But when it hit there, it hit hard. At one point, Chowan County was leading the state with the number of cases per every 1,000 people. “The uniqueness of Covid has been that everybody is struggling with the same thing. We’re all learning at the same rate in terms of how to take care of it and how to keep each other safe”.
“Covid has put a spotlight on all of the things within healthcare that already made it hard for minorities; especially rural black people to have access to care and have equitable treatment”. We’ve seen huge disparities in the media on the increased death rates from Covid in the black community. The vast majority of the patients that have died in Bonner’s immediate area have been black people. For the Edenton native it becomes a little more personal because those patients are not just numbers in a chart; they are his former teachers, friends, and church family.
The silver lining is that uncovering these wounds gives us an opportunity for dialogue and innovation to address some of those historical barriers and disparities that we’ve seen in the past.
“Information without context is the most dangerous thing”.
The advent of the internet and social media has been a gift and a curse, because it puts information in the hands of the patients, but it often gives the wrong information. “Information without context is the most dangerous thing. When people lack the ability to understand something, they will fill in the gaps and make it into something that they can understand. It’s just human nature. We all do it”. Bonner puts it into perspective explaining that even with his decades of experience studying medicine that he still has to work every day to understand medicine and the changes that occur in science and technology. It’s easy for things to be lost in translation when you are speaking with your doctor in a 15-20 minute appointment and they are trying to explain to you what they’ve learned over a period of 15-20 years.
Bonner finds that while a lot of patients are reluctant to talk about Covid, they are very vocal about the vaccine. People are very vocal about their decision not to take the vaccine; with many of them equating the vaccine to the methods used with the flu shot where traditionally small doses of the virus are injected into the body. The difference with the Covid-19 vaccine is that is that it does not include any traces of the virus.
Though many people equate the Covid-19 vaccine to the flu shot, one of the major differences between the two is that the flu shot includes small traces of the virus that are injected into the body but the Covid-19 vaccine does not include any traces of the virus. There are no viral particles, mercury or aluminum in the vaccine. The healthcare community decided to do things a lot differently with this vaccine in order to make people feel safe and comfortable with this new healthcare innovation.
Barriers to patients and the vaccine
In the African American community, most people either rely heavily on their doctors or have a huge amount of distrust for doctors. There is a tainted history that leads many African Americans to be distrustful of doctors, medicines, and of course vaccines. As a Black doctor serving a community that is mostly minority, Bonner would be remiss if he didn’t take into consideration incidents like The Tuskegee Experiment, gynecological experiments, and the overall disparity of issues like heart disease and hypertension. For many rural African American residents, they feel as though they are fighting a losing battle in their attempt to take better care of themselves. This is especially true when most of these residents never see a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist that looks like them. In regards to communities of color, Bonner feels as though our barriers or preconceived notions about trusting the healthcare system are because “We haven’t decided as a people what we want success to look like”. He explains that the history that we’ve had with healthcare and the black community has been one that was marked with incidents that we later identified as a problem, but as a country we’ve never fully apologized for it. We’ve buried the unethical treatment of slaves or things like Tuskegee and the lack of treatment, as well as simply NOT identifying certain disparities in disease and healthcare access. The lack of expression of empathy, regret, or sorrow is still a problem for some black people in America. With Covid, the disproportionate effect on African Americans was identified early. Additionally, when the vaccine was developed the healthcare industry prioritized African Americans; yet our community still rejected it. There were no mandates on taking the vaccine, no waiting because of race or socioeconomic status. But there was a very prevalent sense of resistance that could quite possibly be rooted in the long history of distrust for the American healthcare system. Without identifying what we deem as “success” for our people, we can’t identify the solutions that are acceptable for us.
Another barrier for patients in Bonner’s part of the state is the lack of accurate information. Edenton and Chowan County is positioned in a geographical area that presents a challenge for receiving accurate, up to date information. The small southern town sits right on the border of North Carolina and Virginia, and residents of the town receive their news mainly from Virginia news outlets. Because the makeup of the Virginia cities reported on the news are overwhelmingly urban, residents in this area tend to dismiss certain news stories. Many did not feel as though Covid was relevant to them. It is up to people like Dr. Bonner to make a stronger effort with educating the masses. As a dedicated member of his community, Bonner has relied heavily on churches. But now with churches not meeting in person, this presents another challenge in how to get the information out there in ways that rural communities, and other people who may not trust the healthcare system can understand.
Patient Success Stories
“Don’t lie to your Pastor, your God, or your Doctor”.
Communicating with patients is an artform that not all doctors rely heavily on. But for Bonner, communication has been a huge factor in the success of him reaching an often marginalized population. Having an open dialogue with his patients has been a key factor in helping people overcome illnesses and bridging the gap to understanding their medical care plan. His willingness to communicate and engage in non judgemental dialogue has facilitated patient success stories where both doctor and patient come to a mutual understanding of their needs and expectations. Unfortunately for some, particularly those in the African American community, they are used to the invisible barriers that exist between doctors and patients. Instead of communicating with their doctors, or asking questions they either stop treatment or accept medical advice that goes against their better judgement. This open dialogue also helps to develop a type of trust between the doctor and patient that most black communities have not normally enjoyed. But Bonner says that his philosophy has always been “If you don’t trust your doctor, find a new one”.
Bonner says that he encourages everyone to have the confidence to always ask questions. When asked what patients can do to help their physician provide proper care Bonner says that the key is to come prepared, have your questions ready, and remember that your health and wellness is a team effort. “People tend to adopt the idea of telling their doctors what they think they want to hear” instead of what’s honest and provides insight for their physician to provide a better plan of care.
As one of the few, and perhaps only African American doctors that most of them will ever see, he makes it a point to put in the effort to help his community and ensure that they are armed with information that can help them along their healthcare journey. His mission to save more lives in rural communities is a lifetime commitment that he doesn’t mind sacrificing for. When speaking of his long hours of research and outreach, Bonner humbly reminds us “It’s okay. This is what I signed up for”.