Raena first got pregnant at 28. She was excited and ready to get the best care possible for her and her baby. At the time, she was not aware of the heartbreaking statistics black women faced.
When she started experiencing abnormal pain, Raena intuitively knew there was something wrong with her pregnancy. But she felt ignored and set aside by medical professionals who did not take her concerns seriously. At six months, she delivered a still born baby.
Raena’s story is, unfortunately, a common one among black pregnant women. Black women in the U.S. face 3 to 4x higher maternal mortality rate, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health, according to the CDC.
How NPR put it is this: “A black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from hear disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.”
In some areas, that gap is even wider. For instance, in New York City, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers.
The statistic is also similar when it comes to black infant mortality.
Black babies die at a rate that’s 2.3 times higher than white babies. And most of the problem comes from low birth weight. Black infants are 3.2 times more likely to die from complications related to low birth weight compared to white infants, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
“It was an absolutely traumatic experience and it haunted me for a very long time,” Raena said about her loss. “I began to hear everybody co-signing my story. So I didn’t know this was very prevalent in our community but then I told my aunt, she said that happened to me too. I told my mom, she’s like that happened to me too. I started to tell my best friends, that happened to me too. I’m like, wow, this is crazy. The statistic is 1 in 4, but in the people I was telling as a black woman, it was more like 3 in 4, and sometimes 4 in 4.”
Raena’s story of receiving less than stellar service from medial providers was also co-signed by 200 black women. In a survey, they told NPR and Pro Publica about their own stories about dealing with medical professionals. “Over and over, black women told of medical providers who equated being African-American with being poor, uneducated, noncompliant and unworthy.”
After hearing these stories and joining the organization Great Beginning for Black Babies, Inc in Los Angeles, Raena learned to advocate for her self. That crucial lesson, she believes, helped save her son’s life during her second pregnancy. “When I knew that I should be advocating for myself no matter what this person’s education was like or what their title was, that was a life saver for my son.”
This issue has recently gotten much needed attention due to difficult pregnancies or births celebrities like Serena Williams have had. After delivering her baby through an emergency cesarean section, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. Per her account to Vogue, the rest of Serena’s story goes as follows:
“Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. (Serena lives in fear of blood clots.) She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. “I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”
But this was just the first chapter of a six-day drama.
Her fresh C-section wound popped open from the intense coughing spells caused by the pulmonary embolism, and when she returned to surgery, they found that a large hematoma had flooded her abdomen, the result of a medical catch-22 in which the potentially lifesaving blood thinner caused hemorrhaging at the site of her C-section. She returned yet again to the OR to have a filter inserted into a major vein, in order to prevent more clots from dislodging and traveling into her lungs. Serena came home a week later only to find that the night nurse had fallen through, and she spent the first six weeks of motherhood unable to get out of bed.”
Even after her ordeal, Serena was lucky enough to survive. Countless other black pregnant women, like Shalon Irving, were not so lucky.
Shalon Irving was a Lieutenant Commander at the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. She worked as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shalon spent her days “trying to understand how structural inequality, trauma and violence made people sick.” This accomplished woman got a thrilling news in 2016: she was pregnant with her first child.
The thrilling news, however, turned into a tragedy when Shalon suddenly collapsed and died three weeks after delivering her baby girl.
In the article titled “Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth”, writer Nina Martin writes,
“The researcher working to eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes had become a symbol of one of the most troublesome health disparities facing black women in the U.S. today, disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality. The main federal agency seeking to understand why so many American women — especially black women — die and nearly die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth had lost one of its own. Even Shalon’s many advantages — her B.A in sociology, her two master’s degrees and dual-subject Ph.D., her gold-plated insurance and rock-solid support system — had not been enough to ensure her survival. If a village this powerful hadn’t been able to protect her, was any black woman safe?”
The answer to Nina’s question, unfortunately, is a no. No black pregnant woman is safe from these statistics. However, at the end of the day, we can only count on ourselves to advocate for our well being as well as the well being of our babies. It is up to us to educate ourselves on this matters and find the resources we need.
Here are links to some organizations working to save the lives of black mothers. We highly encourage any pregnant woman, especially a black woman, to find a support system though the people around her or one of the following organizations. You do not have to be experiencing a difficult pregnancy or a racist medical staff to connect with one of these organizations. The more you know and the more support you have, the better prepared you will be for whatever bumps you face during and after your pregnancy.