2020 anxiety emotions ignorance infant labor and delivery maternity pregnancy Pregnancy #4 pregnant preparations

Black Mothers are dying in labor…Why Aren’t We Really Talking About It?

This week, a friend posted a link on her Facebook page the story of Nicole Thea.  For those who don’t know, Nicole Thea was a popular London-based YouTube and Instagram star eight months pregnant by her partner Boga.  Nicole had been documenting her pregnancy and sharing updates to more than 230K Instagram followers and among YouTube videos which could garner 1 million views.  She was only 24 years old and her partner and her fan base were anxiously awaiting the baby’s (whom she was naming Reign) arrival.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.  Nicole’s family recounted that she was struggling to breathe, that she hadn’t been seen properly during the COVID pandemic, that she kept complaining and was continually dismissed as having symptoms that were a regular part of pregnancy.  Only they weren’t.  On July 11th, at 24 years old and 8 months pregnant, Nicole Thea and Baby Reign died.  Her family spoke of a possible massive heart attack.  

Nicole Thea and partner Boga
Photo cred:  YouTube lift

Today, a different FB associate posted the story of Chrissy Sample.  Chrissy Sample was a 34 year old black wife, mother of an 8 year old boy, and expectant mother of twins due mid-July.  She’d complained regularly of severe and debilitating pain in her legs and lower abdomen.  Based in the NY area, she’d only seen her regular OB and she told her the pains (though completely immobilizing) were completely normal.  Because of advanced maternal age (AMA), she was supposed to see a high-risk obstetrician, but the excuse of COVID prevented that from happening according to an article in the New York times  by Emily Bobrow.  When Ms. Sample finally was able to see the doctor, she discovered that one of her twins had passed in utereo–three days before she was able to be seen.  According to the article, the doctor could have saved the twin had Chrissy been seen earlier.

Sadly this is not the only case of black mothers and/or their children dying in childbirth.  In New York, where Chrissy Sample lived, black women are 8 to 12 times more likely to die in childbirth related causes than white women (Bobrow, 2020).  In the United States, the number is less at 3-4 four times, but still more than white women.  However, statistically, black women have a 234% higher chance of death in childbirth than any other ethnic group.  In Virginia, where I reside, “black women die in or near childbirth more than three times as often as women from any other race. They died at a rate of 36.6 per 100,000 births since 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate was 11 for white women.(Hafner, 2018).  The sad thing is these statistics and the danger for black women in labor isn’t just limited to the layperson. 

Beyonce’ Knowles-Carter and Serena Williams (Ohanian)
Photo cred:  Getty Images

Beyonce’ is known world wide as being an incredibly talented singer, actress, dancer, producer, director, artist, etc.  Serena Williams is known world wide as being the indomitable threat of talent and skill on the tennis courts.  But, in the maternity ward, they were two black women facing the harrowing truth of being black while pregnant.  Beyonce’ disclosed after the birth of her twins Rumi and Sir that she was diagnosed with preclampsia which resulted in her having an emergency C-section.

Serena Williams shared her birthing experience in which she had to demand to be checked for pulmonary embolism after her concerns were being ignored and dismissed.  She ended up also having an emergency C-section.  Her candor was very evident in an op-ed piece written for CNN.  The first line simple and to the point….she “almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia”.

While the CDC shares that 31.9% of births in the United States are C-sections, black women are more likely to undergo the procedure than any other race.  The CDC also notes several implicit biases that exist towards black women including the belief that we can tolerate pain at a higher level, so our pain complaints are more readily ignored.

My ‘Bug’.  It was a great experience after the initial welcome party

I believe this.  I have shared the story about my first birthing experience with my son Bug.  I was a single mother at the time, 26 years old, college-educated, professionally employed, great medical insurance, living on my own living the American dream.  When my water broke, because I lived three to five minutes from the hospital, I simply drove myself.  My family lived either in NC or NJ, so I was well prepared to have this baby on my own (or at least labor until my tribe arrived). I admit to looking younger than I am.

About two to three weeks before delivering ‘Bug’

I walked through the doors and calmly told the intake professional–an elderly white woman–that my water had broken and I needed to be taken to Labor and Delivery for triage.  She looked at me and verbally scoffed.  She asked if I’d peed myself.  I told her I had not, same calm tone.  She asked where my family was.  I told her probably 2 hours away since I hadn’t called them.  She clucked her tongue, sighed and then called for a wheelchair.  I initially thought nothing of it as it was after midnight when I came in and just thought she was having an off night.  When I turned around so that I could face the wheelchair, she saw that I was drenched from the amniotic fluid that was still leaking and she had a fit!

“Oh, her water is broken!  Hurry.  Someone take her upstairs”.  I looked at her confused, but continued on in the elevator.  In the room, another woman came in.  She was equally dismissive and short.  She asked my insurance starting with Medicaid.  When I told her I had an employee provided PPO, she raised an eyebrow and took the card as if expecting a trick.  First time labor and delivery, I still hadn’t quite picked up something was wrong–until she asked me to verify my date of birth.  When I told it to her, she repeated the year incredulously and said, “Oh honey.  We all been thinking you were like 12 or 14 years old”.  To which I immediately and automatically responded “is that why you all have been treating me so poorly?”.  She turned beet red and apologized.  She asked a couple of questions and upon learning that I was not the socioeconomically challenged little girl she thought I was, left the room, returned a few minutes later and the remaining nursing staff and L&D staff were absolutely wonderful.  Still, when it came time to do patient survey, I wrote the truth of my experience with intake up to how friendly the staff was after the age and stereotype treatment.  I actually received an apology from the hospital.  I wish I’d saved it.  I have no doubt in my mind that I was treated as I was treated initially because the hospital intake professional working the night desk thought I was just “another black teen mom” coming in already on welfare to have a baby.  I see how their treatment of me changed and wonder how many other people were treated discourteously because they were the perceived stereotype.  But even if I was a young teen on federal assistance, why be so nasty and dismissive?  Sigh.

I am very thankful that my obstetrician is a Christian, black woman.  I am well aware that there are great and wonderful professionals of other ethnicities.  The wonderful doctor who delivered my youngest son and daughter was a fantastically professional White man.  So, I know that great professionals exist.  But I definitely am glad to be able to share concerns about black mortality rates with a doctor who won’t dismiss my concerns or make me feel stupid for asking.  

I definitely want to be here to see my sons and daughters grow up.  I want to have grandbabies and great-grandbabies.  I want to be able to spend time with my family and grow old with my husband.  I recognize the mortality rate of the black mother aren’t exactly the greatest in the regard.  So, I’m definitely paying attention and learning to advocate for myself.  If it feels off, I’m asking about it and “that’s normal” isn’t going to work for me.

Something has to be done.  I know there are discussions, but seriously….something more has to be done.  But what?


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2 Comments

  1. Katelyn says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, I am horrified by the realities women of color have faced and continue to face. I’m ashamed to say that as a white person, I had the privilege of not being directly affected by these statistics and was able to exist in ignorance. I will do what I can with my vote to protect bodily autonomy, I will continue my efforts at the local and state level to be a voice for equality. I hear you, I see you, and what has happened to you and women of color- what continues to happen because of ignorant, racist, and privileged people is not okay. I work in dentistry and recently in my state we have changed the continuing education requirements to include implicit bias training. I learned a lot and I’m grateful to the hard work of so many to challenge ourselves to be better human beings. Thank you again for sharing your story. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to see the disparity in mortality rates of women of color- I think protecting the right to have bodily autonomy is important and I think implicit bias training for healthcare professionals is important. It’s high past time for myself and others to use any privilege we have to advocate for dignity, equality, and safety for all.

    1. Hello Katelyn. Thank you so much for your comment. I thank you for your words and for all you are doing. Your words mean a lot. Your actions even more so. Even greater to me is the fact that you read this post and didn’t immediately think of me as “stirring the pot” or “exaggerating”, but instead took it as an opportunity for dialogue and understanding. If we all could do the same for every situation, trying to understand whether we agree with each other or not, I believe so much more could be accomplished. Thank you again for your comments, your words, and for sharing your thoughts on this blog. I appreciate you very much!

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