The Black Mortality Rate Is Shocking
The numbers say I am supposed to be dead by now. Statistically, I should be six feet under and forgotten about. The pregnancy of my firstborn was traumatic. The eight and a half months leading up to the birth of my child were filled with pain, discomfort and swollen feet. They were topped off with passive-aggressive dismissal and unanswered questions.
According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The disparity causes the Black maternal mortality rate to be higher compared to other women. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), multiple factors contribute to Black women’s healthcare disparities. This includes variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias. These factors make it almost impossible for Black women to get fair access to economic, physical, and emotional health opportunities. All of these factors contributed to my experience.
Living in a predominately white city, the chances that I would end up in a hospital with all-white medical professionals who could not fully relate to the nuances of my pregnancy experience were very high. Every routine hospital visit and ultrasound was awkward and uncomfortable during my pregnancy. Medical professionals who should have answered my questions and concerns in detail often gave me short and curt answers. Oftentimes, it felt as though I was bothering them.
After a few months into the pregnancy, I realized that my health care team did not discuss specific details about my pregnancy. This left me in the dark and I had to figure it out on my own. As a Black woman with a high-risk pregnancy, I had a higher chance of experiencing issues like preeclampsia, heart disease, hypertension and gestational diabetes, to say the least. True to statistics, I eventually developed a severe case of gestational diabetes. At the height of my condition, the level of care I received was lacking, but that was only the beginning.
How It Started
My son came nine days early, and I started to feel sharp, biting contractions around midnight. After waiting for an hour because I was unsure if it was labor, I finally made it to the hospital. After arriving at the Emergency entrance, I was wheeled to the nurse’s station. A few minutes later, the nurses confirmed that I was dilated and in labor. The next few hours were a blur that became even blurrier after I got my epidural.
Labor was a hazy experience fueled by cutting episodes of pain, inconsistent numbing and contractions that knocked the breath out of me for periods of time. At the height of labor pain, I began to scream and cry. In those moments, the nurses, all part of an all-white delivery team, seemed irritable and impatient. I suddenly felt alone and unsafe. But, those feelings were immediately knocked out by the added fear I began to feel as my delivery neared. Delivery nurses snapped at me throughout the few hours of labor, and doctors responded to my cries in a robotic and unfeeling way. Their blue eyes almost seemed to mirror their aloof and cold disposition towards my condition. After my son was born and placed on my chest, the pain felt worth it, but the nightmare had only begun.
After delivering my child, a nurse wheeled me to another recovery room three floors above. My mouth felt dry, and my throat hurt from crying. I could not fully feel my body, but I did know that I was laying in a reclining hospital bed. I noticed that I was bleeding a lot, and when I raised my concern to one of the nurses, she assured me that the bleeding was normal. After arriving at the room, I dozed off, and hours later, I woke up and asked to hold my child.
While holding my child in my arms, I noticed an intense chill run through my body. My body slowly began to stiffen and go numb. After a few minutes of holding my son, my husband reached out to take our child from my arms. Suddenly, a look of horror spread across his face, and at that moment, I realized that my baby’s blanket and my maternity gown were drenched in blood. We immediately pressed the help button.
A nurse then came to my room, took one look at my sheets and said she would get a doctor to look at me. After waiting for over two hours, I could feel the blood leaving my body. My husband insisted that we call for a doctor, so he pressed the help button again, and another nurse came in, She immediately looked horrified after seeing my sheets, and then called for a doctor from her work phone.
Before long, nine health care team members were in my room. The team consisted of doctors and seven nurses with scrunched foreheads and furrowed brows. The next thirty minutes were filled with excruciating pain as the male doctor tried to determine why I was bleeding so much. He later told me that the delivery team did not completely remove my placenta during my delivery. He followed up by saying that there were still pieces of placenta left, causing a postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) that could kill me.
At this point, I had almost bled out and there was very little blood in my body. He said I would have to undergo a Dilation and Curettage (D&C) surgery to remove the retained placenta. After hearing what he had to say, I began to cry uncontrollably because I genuinely believed I would die. I asked to hold my child because I thought I would not wake up again. One of the nurses wheeled me into a surgical room where I was sedated and drifted into a dark, blurry sleep.
When I first woke up, I thought I was in the afterlife. Everything seemed hazy and unreal until I saw a nurse who told me that the surgery had been successful and wheeled me back to my recovery room, where my husband and child were waiting. Seeing my child again and knowing that I had lived through all of the trauma is an unforgettable moment. Doctors spent the next hour finding a blood match for me and then using an intravenous administration to transfuse six pints of blood back into my body. The average human being has approximately 10.5 pints, but I had bled out so much that I needed six pints to replace all of the lost blood.
I was discharged on Christmas eve, and although my baby was the perfect Christmas gift, I could not move for another month. The pain almost seemed to quadruple in the first few days following my delivery. My only close family member was my husband, who cared for me and showed a lot of support. After the ordeal, the jarring part was how many of the people I thought were in my corner seemed to dismiss my experience.
I genuinely shared my near-death experience and the flippant way that my healthcare team treated my pregnancy, but the reactions of many people outside of my ethnicity, mostly white, were dismissive. One person even said that her aunt had had a difficult recovery after a routine teeth removal. Not only did she minimize my experience, she essentially said: “See? we white people experience it too,” in not too many words. Although I felt ashamed about the dismissal, the gaslighting and the deflection, it later turned into anger—the type of anger that people feel after an injustice—this feeling has never fully gone away. I realized that the issue was dire after I shared my experience in another article I wrote on social media, and white nurses commented, questioning my story and denying that there was anything like medical racism.
There is Some Hope
In a society where Black maternal health is often neglected, brushed aside and dismissed, Black women are at much risk, but there is hope. If you are a pregnant Black woman who has experienced medical racism or you are currently pregnant, there are options. Black doulas are increasingly championing safe spaces for pregnant Black women. If you haven’t already, download the Irth app, which allows you to find postpartum, birthing and pediatric reviews from Black and brown women’s experiences to protect other women. The app aims to remove the rampant bias that Black and brown women consistently face in the medical world.
As Black women, we have the right and the power to advocate for our overall health and ask pertinent questions that affect our wellness. Don’t be intimidated by passive aggression, and whenever possible, try to find a doctor that understands your ethnicity, background and lifestyle. It makes all the difference. If you live in an area like where I live were Black doctors are scarce or hardly available, consider investing in a doula.
Although I almost lost my life, I am one of the few Black women to have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and made it out alive. I am not alive because I was stronger or more resilient than women who have lost their lives because of medical racism. I am alive today, perhaps because of a stroke of luck, a higher power or a little bit of a will to live.