Black mothers' mental and physical health is in danger when hospital staff don't believe us
In March 2012, I was 40 weeks pregnant and beyond ready to give birth. Despite the natural water birth plan I had crafted to bring my daughter into the world, my child would arrive on her own terms. Hours and hours of pre-labor led my midwife to finally say we needed to head to the hospital for a Pitocin drip.
My midwife (who is also my aunt), my mother, my husband, and I checked into what was then called South Fulton Medical Center. I received a Pitocin drip to ratchet up my contractions and speed along labor. The pains gripped my belly, but my cervix refused to dilate more than a few centimeters.
At the advice of my midwife, I reluctantly asked for an epidural after more hours of excruciating Pitocin-induced spasms. Terrified, I sat rigidly upright while the anesthesiologist inserted that infamous needle deep into my spine. While the numbness came quickly, the relief was incomplete. I still felt contractions rippling up one side of my body, but my blood pressure was too low for the medical staff to give me any more anesthesia.
After I had spent over 24 hours in the hospital, my baby’s heart rate skyrocketed. Nurses flitted around me like moths, whispering about an emergency Caesarean. I did not want a C-section, but I would do it to save my unborn daughter.
This did not mean I made the decision fearlessly. I felt anxiety for my own well being and my baby’s.
My misgivings were not unfounded: Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely than white women to die while giving birth.
I lay in a vulnerable position — physically tired, emotionally drained, hungry, in pain, wires connected to where the sun didn’t shine — and so I cried helplessly.
The hospital staff saw women like me every day, which is to say that they did not see me as an individual. Whatever trauma I felt did not matter to them. The obstetrician remarked that I shouldn’t worry about her being at the end of her shift because C-sections were routine to her. One of the nurses referred to me as a “crybaby” while she strapped me down to the operating table. Had my family not been present to advocate for me, I absolutely believe they would have treated me worse. I leaned on my support team whenever a doctor or nurse attempted to “tell” me what procedure I was going to have — rather than seek and accept my consent or declination.
The second anesthesiologist taunted me in the operating room. She told me that the experience happening to my body in that moment was not about me, but about my baby. Didn’t I care about my baby? And that wasn’t the end of her condescension — she went into full preacher mode, telling me that my “problem” was that I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t in control. God was in control. I should be celebrating and crying tears of joy.
My daughter arrived safely via C-Section on March 8th, 2012, and I had no idea just how lucky we were to have each other. Between May and July of that same year, four babies died in the maternity ward where I’d delivered my child.
By July 26th, the hospital’s then-owner, Tenet Healthcare, had closed the entire labor and delivery unit at South Fulton Medical Center.
Vogue recently published an interview with tennis star Serena Williams where she details her ordeal after giving birth to her daughter. In distress, she gave the doctors and nurses the information they needed to save her from blood clots in her lungs — and they ignored her. Why? Who knows.
But I can say for certain that this kind of resistance to believing Black women when they are medical patients runs rampant.
Many women like me are asking ourselves a question to which we already know the answer: If something like this can happen to a wealthy, well-known Black woman like Serena Williams, then what is the fate of Black women who do not have her resources? The documented racial bias in pain management for Black patients has no single attributable cause, but the effects are undeniable. Racism and discrimination toward pregnant Black women puts both mothers and babies at risk. Mistreatment can be compounded by socioeconomic factors, although the outcomes are often the same even when controlled for class and education.
In the city of East Point, Georgia, where I delivered my daughter, 28 percent of the residents live in poverty and over 78 percent of the residents are Black.
So, I wondered if it was routine for the nursing staff to ask new mothers, “What contraception will you be using?” right when new moms emerge from the fog of anesthesia in the recovery room. Or was the timing of the question influenced by race and class bias? Because of my experience during labor and delivery, I second-guessed every aspect of my treatment postpartum. I questioned my own sanity.
By characterizing me as an ungrateful “crybaby” patient, the hospital staff demonstrated a striking disregard for my mental health during childbirth. I tried to tell myself, like they told me, that my baby was healthy and that was all that mattered.
I was wrong.
It is a grave mistake to ignore the mental health of new mothers, as if emphasizing the status of the newborn suffices for treatment of the mother who just experienced a painful, hours-long ordeal. As much as 20 percent of women who give birth suffer from postpartum depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder — and low-income Black mothers in urban areas are at risk for high rates of these illnesses. I also dealt with depression following the delivery of my baby.
Today, I think about the four women of color who lost their babies in 2012 shortly after I delivered at the same hospital. Their stories of receiving inadequate pre-and-antenatal treatment from the staff mirror Serena Williams’s experience, but with heartbreaking results that, thankfully, Williams avoided. Black women’s physical and mental health both matter when we are giving birth. Sadly, we and our babies will remain endangered if the professionals entrusted with our care do not believe us — and treat us adequately and with dignity — when we cry out in pain.