The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine.
A few weeks ago, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a story about a black woman incarcerated in Pennsylvania who died after years of painful migraines.
Kynesha Grant had been taking Topomax, which didn’t work. She requested a CT scan, but her request was denied. After she was found unresponsive in her cell, she was taken to the hospital, where she died. The cause of death was “anoxic brain injury due to brain tumor.”
The article reports that Kynesha’s migraines grew worse, and that her mother attempted to lobby the Department of Corrections to give her daughter the care she needed, but nothing was done except a few prescriptions.
That is not acceptable.
We know doctors don’t take black women’s pain seriously. And anyone who’s sought treatment for migraine knows how difficult it can be to get a doctor to listen. Even as a white woman, I had to visit four separate doctors over a period of two years before I was able to get a definitive diagnosis and begin a treatment plan that had a hope of working.
The first thing my migraine specialist did was order an MRI to rule out any other possible causes for my head pain. Any time I’ve gone to the ER because of a migraine, the doctors order a CT scan as part of the routine examination. In some cases, this is absolutely unnecessary. At this point, I’ve had chronic migraine for a decade. I know my migraines well, and it’s clear that I don’t have a brain tumor or traumatic brain injury causing my pain. But I only know that because I was tested.
Kynesha should have been given a CT scan as soon as her migraines worsened or changed, but her pain was dismissed, and she was told she just needed to give Topomax time to work.
I understand that working as a prison doctor must be difficult. Many of the patients have a history of substance abuse. But Kynesha wasn’t asking for opioids. She was asking for a diagnostic scan, and she should have been given that scan while her tumor was still treatable. It seems like Kynesha had a substance abuse problem that led to her prison sentence of 6-12 years.
It should not have been a death sentence.
We in the migraine community have made progress in the past few years. We finally have preventive medications developed specifically for migraine. We’ve worked hard to make our invisible illness visible. We’ve been advocating against migraine stigma online and in our real lives. Kynesha’s death shows that we still have a lot of work to do, particularly when it comes to women of color and marginalized populations, including the incarcerated.
If you are a Pennsylvania resident, you can send your concerns about the treatment migraine patients receive in our state prisons using this form. This issue extends beyond migraine patients, and I’d urge you to advocate for better, compassionate health care for all incarcerated individuals in our state, particularly people and women of color.
For those of you who live outside Pennsylvania, you can still contact your own state’s department of corrections or governor to let them know this is an issue you care about. And if you haven’t read, please read the entire Post-Gazette’s story. Three children are now without their mother forever, but they didn’t have to be. Let’s work to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.