Black Mothers are Dying at an Alarming Rate
Black mothers are dying at an alarming rate, we are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related deaths. (CDC) How in the Health Did that Happen? Research suggests that “large disparities continue to exist in many reproductive health outcomes and collaborative efforts at multiple levels in the community and health care systems are needed if we are to effectively close the gaps.” (Anachebe and Sutton, 2003) The sad reality (I cringe writing this), is that Black women are undervalued and not given the same medical attention as white women. We are not monitored with the same intensity, which is indicative of poor quality of care. Another disparity, which is extremely prevalent for women of lower socioeconomic status, is access to care. Lastly, in healthcare settings, black women often go unheard leading to misdiagnoses or missed diagnoses.
According to the CDC, unfortunately roughly 700 women die each year in the US from pregnancy or delivery related complications. How can a country with such advance medical practice be the most dangerous place to give birth? As a Georgia resident it is alarming to know that Georgia is leading in maternal death rates. Mainstream media, until recently did not give much attention to these tragedies; however, the conversation is becoming more prevalent within communities. Famous tennis player Serena Williams and world renown entertainer/business mogul Beyoncé recently shared their stories of experiencing life-threatening complications during their pregnancies. Celebrity television judge, Judge Glenda Hatchett’s family had to suffer the tragedy of losing a loved one to a pregnancy related death. Click here to learn more about the death of Judge Hatchett’s daughter-in-law, Kira Dixon Jackson. The story hit headlines and inspired producers of the “The Resident” to highlight racial disparities and maternal death in one of their episodes.
“It’s basically a public health and human rights emergency because it’s been estimated that a significant portion of these deaths could be prevented,” said Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. (American Heart Association). As a black mother who is a health and wellness advocate, this topic resonates with me on many levels. Now, pregnant with my second child I feel a greater sense of empowerment after making the conscious effort to seek more knowledge, having endured a traumatic experience leading up to and following the birth of my first child.
My first pregnancy was a breeze. Other than some irritability, I had no physical or health challenges during the pregnancy with my first child. I’ll be honest, I refused to read blogs or mommy-help books because I wanted to simply take motherhood as it came. I did not take any birthing classes nor join any support groups. My OB-GYN was the sweetest. I never questioned her care. The week of my delivery I had to be seen by my doctor’s colleague because office policy was that OB patients be seen by the physician on-call closer to their due date. This lady was not the most warm and inviting physician – her bedside manner was terrible. I worked in the hospital and often saw her interacting with her colleagues much differently (more warmly) than she did with me. I guess that was the first “red flag”.
It was a Friday and I had a 39-week routine visit. She did a vaginal exam that felt more aggressive than usual. I did not hesitate expressing my concern to her. After leaving the office, I immediately started to have contractions. Before I could get home, the contractions were closer together. My fiancé and I stopped for food, I went home to shower and called the doctor hours later. She was rude and told me to labor at home. I packed my bag and we headed to the hospital. We lived 30 miles from my hospital of choice and I was not going to risk giving birth anywhere else, with my contractions so close together. When we arrived at the hospital, I could barely walk and I asked the nurse if they were sending me home. She said “Oh no hunny, you’re having a baby tonight.” The amazing nurses provided exceptional care and made me as comfortable as they could, considering I was in active labor. The doctor showed up, did another aggressive vaginal exam and broke my water without my consent. Not too long after receiving my epidural, I started pushing. I was not pushing long when the doctor threatened to use forceps if I did not give her a good push. I yelled and told her “No, you will not!”, pushed hard and birthed my son. We were discharged routinely and days later I developed a high-grade fever and began shaking uncontrollably. My cousin drove me to the nearest hospital while my fiancé stayed with our newborn baby. The ED at the local hospital was empty, so I was taken back immediately. The hospital financial advisor spent more time with me than an actual doctor. I demanded to be transported to my hospital of choice. They declined and I threatened to leave. They immediately called an ambulance and I was transported to the hospital where I delivered. I was given a room back in the postpartum wing. The physician who delivered my son was still on call, so she was the first person to visit my room. Eight years later and I remember it like it was yesterday, the lady walked to the doorway of my room and said “You’re back, you know it was not our fault.” Yes, I had many years of healthcare experience and yes I was well connected but I never thought to bring any legal action; however, I knew at that very moment that whatever became of this was bigger than me. I was hospitalized for roughly two weeks because a very aggressive bacteria latched onto my kidneys, resulting in a cyst on my kidneys and a terrible kidney infection. Before being discharged, a PICC line was inserted to continue treating the infection with aggressive antibiotics. My fever never truly broke, I lost weight and I had to see a few specialists. I cried every night, alone in that hospital room away from my newborn child and family. I was told that it was safe to try breast-feeding but I refused. I was stripped of bonding time with my child. I accumulated tons of hospital debt and spent a lot of time in transfusion clinics and at doctor visits. I could not help but to wonder if this experience would have been different had I not been a woman of color. Nonetheless, I knew that I needed to educate myself, now here we are.
A close friend (who is also a blogger) and I were conversing about our pregnancies and I learned that she too, had a traumatic postpartum experience. We both agree that there is a great need to educate and draw more awareness. Shavon Sawyer shares her experience and thoughts on this topic below.
Maternal death has risen, especially among African American women. I’ve read so many stories, seen so many horrifying videos of black women not getting the care they need after having children. Doctors aren’t listening, they aren’t being patient, and it is literally killing us. There are so many untold stories that outway the number of stories being told.
The Story of Kira Dixon Johnson was one that really woke me up. It gave me insight on a problem so many women face. The problem of going into the hospital to have their precious little one, yet, they succumb to their delivery and never get their chance of raising their child. If you haven’t heard her story, you should definitely scroll back up to read more about it. In summary, Kira was a healthy mother who had gone into the hospital for the delivery of her second child via C-section. She and her husband, Charles, were ready to welcome their second child into the world, in which everything was fine until after the C-section. With a C-section being a medical surgery, there’s a lot that has to go into recovery afterward just as if it were any other major surgery. After 12 hours of mediocre care post C-Section, and desperate attempts from her husband to get her help, Kira died of massive blood loss.
Had Kira received adequate attention to her health at the time of her recovery, she would still be here today, raising her children with her husband. Instead, she’s gone and her husband had to leave the hospital with their child in tow, alone. Her husband has since sued the hospital Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for wrongful death and negligence. He also founded 4Kira4Moms to advocate for better maternal care.
Hearing her story, and the stories of other women scared me because it could’ve been me. After I had my son Kason, a few days later I was in excruciating pain. The pain was so immense that I could barely walk. I can’t even explain the feeling, I just knew something was extremely wrong. I literally used one of [my husband] Norris’ fraternity canes to assist me. He had to help me in and out of bed, and help me walk. After about 2 days, I decided to go to the doctor. After seeing me for maybe 5 minutes, the doctor told me the pain was from the C-section. She told me to give it a few days and I told her the pain was too great. I mean I rolled into her office in a wheelchair!!! Yet, she once again told me the pain was being caused by my delivery and if I was still in pain, to then come back the next day. I told her I would be back the next day, and sure enough, I was. This time, they performed an MRI. I was not leaving until they told me what was wrong with me. I refused to leave. Once the results came back, the doctor looked at me and told me I needed to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy (removal of the appendix). I’m looking at her like are you insane?! You sent me home yesterday but now I’m being rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery! Thankfully the surgery was successful and after a few days in the hospital, I was able to go home to my family. However, I kept asking myself how everything changed so quickly. What if I had not gone back to the doctor the next day? What if I had actually listened to the doctor saying it was only the C-section causing me pain? These were the questions I kept asking myself. I’m so glad I listened to myself and that my husband was right there with me. It could have been me.
If you are in any situation where you are in need of care, please, whatever you do, advocate for yourself. Doctors are there to help us, but if they don’t know you personally, they sometimes go off of what they learned in school to hurry you out of the office. Some of them are overworked, overwhelmed, and are there to get their coins. Don’t allow them to brush you off with a quick diagnosis. Speak up for yourself, and if you can’t, ensure that you have someone that can do it for you. You deserve the chance at a better life, so make sure you’ve done all you can for yourself to make sure you get that chance.
Shavon and I wanted to share our experiences with other moms and we thought this week would be the perfect time to do so – during Black Maternal Health Week! There are countless preventive measures that can be taken to avoid maternal deaths. We will continue spreading more awareness and look forward to partnering with other advocates.
The third annual national Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW) campaign, founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, will be a week of awareness, activism, and community building intended to:
- Deepen the national conversation about Black maternal health in the US;
- Amplify community-driven policy, research, and care solutions;
- Center the voices of Black Mamas, women, families, and stakeholders;
- Provide a national platform for Black-led entities and efforts on maternal health, birth and reproductive justice; and
- Enhance community organizing on Black maternal health.
Black Maternal Health Week takes place every year from April 11 –17. The month of April is recognized in the United States as National Minority Health Month – a month-long initiative to advance health equity across the country on behalf of all racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, we are joining dozens of global organizations who are fighting to end maternal mortality globally in advocating that the United Nations recognize April 11th as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.
The campaign and activities for Black Maternal Health Week serve to amplify the voices of Black mamas and center the values and traditions of the reproductive and birth justice movements. Activities during BMHW are rooted in human rights, reproductive justice, and birth justice frameworks. Become a Sponsor of #BMHW20 TODAY!
GA Department of Public Health – Maternal Mortality
American Heart Association – Why are black women at such high risk of dying from pregnancy complications?
CDC – Pregnancy Related Deaths