The Decaying Realities Behind Deamonte Driver’s Death

While waiting for my flight recently, I purchased a $5 bottle of water (which I believe is an absurd price since federal regulations prohibit us from bringing our own water through security).  I opted for the healthy, but expensive water instead of one of the much cheaper, but sugary drinks available (juice, pop, etc.).  The disparity among the prices of the available beverages vis-à-vis their respective nutritional/health values was ridiculous, and I could not help but think about the tragic death of a young homeless boy named  Deamonte Driver. Deamonte died just because he was not able to afford to have a rotten tooth pulled!

I first learned about Deamonte’s death in 2007 while I was on a plane returning back home from participating in the presentation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reparations case  at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C.  Over the years, I have often thought about Deamonte and what he would be doing if he had just had the tooth pulled in time.

Last year, I was excited to learn that others were so moved by Deamonte’s story that they actually did something to honor this young man by providing services to low-income children via Deamonte’s Dental Project.  I wrote about the day I learned about Deamonte’s death, and how it made me feel.  Below is what I wrote in 2007, and I think it is just as relevant today:

The Story: The Washington Post (“Post”) reported the senseless death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old African-American male who died because of an infection that started with an abscessed tooth that was not treated because his Medicaid coverage had recently lapsed.  U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin is quoted in today’s Post, “it is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because a family can’t find a  dentist to remove an infected tooth…Deamote’s Driver’s death is particularly devastating because it was easily preventable.”   The tragedy prompted Cardin and Sen. Jeff Bingaman to introduce the Children’sDental Health Improvement Act of 2007.  According to the story, prospects for the passage of the bill, which seeks to authorize $40 million to help community health centers and health departments to hire dental health professionals to serve poor people is “complicated” by state budgets.   Mostly due to low reimbursement amounts and time-consuming, bureaucratic paper work, only 565 out of 6000 dentists in the D.C. area accept Medicaid.

My Experience: When the flight attendant came to offer passengers in my aisle a choice of beverage, I noticed that those asking for pop received a cup of soda AND the entire can. When I requested some water and was only given a cup, I immediately inquired “uhh…could I receive the remaining bottle of the water also?” The flight attendant politely told me that would be “three dollars.”   I said, “So I can have a can of pop, but I must purchase a bottle of water?”   She said, “Yes sir, that’s the rule.”  I thanked her and thought “Wow, if I wanted a can of pop that’s full of sugar, caffeine and other chemicals, it’s free, but the desire for the same amount of clean, fresh water — the substance that is second only to oxygen as necessary  to sustain life — would cost me almost half the federal minimum hourly wage…dang!”

My Thoughts: Shortly after the flight attendant proceeded down the aisle, the irony between my experience and the story of Deamonte Driver’s tragic death hit me.  For the same price that Deamonte Driver and his family could purchase a 16-ounce-bottle of clean, fresh water, Deamonte could purchase a sugar laden, tooth decaying two-liter bottle of soda.  I pondered which purchase made more sense for the cash-deprived, homeless youth wanting to quench his thirst and unaware of the full negative implications of drinking sugar drinks while having no access to affordable dental care.   Further, I pondered, what if Deamonte Driver had not died from a tooth infection.  What life prospects awaited this poor inner-city youth in a country where a virtual “blank check” exists for resources that support death and pain such as the Iraq war (400 BILLION and counting in Iraq), but finds it “complicated” to allocate “pennies” ($40 million) for programs that support life and good health.

My Reaction:  I cried because of the tragedy of Deamonte Driver’s leaving this world so unnecessarily.  I cried because of the tragedy that will live in a world like this, so, so unnecessarily.  We don’t have to accept that this course is the way it has to be.  Stories like Deamonte’s should motivate us, as concerned citizens of the United States, to take action to ensure that everyone has their most basic needs met.

My Call to Action: We need to contact our respective federal, state, and local representatives and encourage them to support programs,  legislation and policies  that provide for the most vulnerable and needy among us, especially when those in need are children.  While some may argue that we can’t afford these types of programs, I believe that we can’t afford to lose anymore Deamonte Drivers!

Damario Solomon-Simmons, M.E.d., J.D., is the managing partner of SolomonSimmonSharrock & Associates law firm and an adjunct professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. His life’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower and can be contacted at dsolo@solomonsimmons.com or @solospeakstruth.

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