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On the Maternal Health of Black Women

Jacqueline Nicole Harris Senior Contributor & Editor-in-Chief

Systemic racism extends itself into every fabric of our society; no field is exempt, including the field of medicine.

The American healthcare system has an extensive history of mistreating Black women. James Marion Sims, the "father of modern gynecology", life’s work was based on the visceral mistreatment of Black female slaves. To get a better understanding of the human female anatomy, Sims would often “examine” these women without anesthesia.

In 2018, it was estimated that 50,000 women face life threatening pregnancy complications each year. Black women are more likely to fall victim to this ongoing mortality crisis in America. How much more likely? According to studies by the CDC, Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience complications during their pregnancies.

Consider the case of tennis champion Serena Williams, whose very vocal and knowledgeable cries went almost completely ignored until the last minute. After giving birth to her daughter, Serena’s trouble began when she fell short of breath because of blood clots in her lungs.

Even though Serena had a medical history of being treated for a pulmonary embolism in 2011, her initial pleas for help were almost ignored. The tennis star's case brought to light the implicant bias in the medical industry towards Black women and their own knowledge of their own bodies. It got many to think that if this could happen to Serena, what about me?

There is a lot that is not understood about the gap between the deaths of black mothers and their white peers. Is it just economics? Obviously, no. Well, are other health and lifestyle issues mitigating factors in this issue like poor diet and obesity? No. According to a ProPublica article about a study done in New York City published by Nina Martin & Renee Montagne (December 7, 2017): Obese women of all races do better than black women who are of normal weight. And Black women in the wealthiest neighborhoods do worse than White, Hispanic, and Asian mothers in the poorest ones.

Can we simply educate ourselves out of this issue? It may take more than that.

Readers, I have taken up so much time doing research for this post. I have learned so much; more than I can say here. What can we do? I believe it is up to the individual to always be woke, aware and proactive when dealing with the issue of their own health. I can go on and on about ancient and recent history, but women of color need comfort and information right now. I reached out to a family member is who is a mother, a woman of color and a doctor herself. I asked her: How should we express ourselves when talking to a family doctor or Primary Care Physician?

In some cases, black women are not

believed when there is an issue and in other cases, our concerns are just flat out

ignored. Is there anything we can do as

patients to prevent that?

In an outpatient setting she recommends being persistent with the PCP about your concerns and health.

  • Document each visit, either in writing or VLOG.

  • Ask for a 2nd opinion even from another provider in the office.

  • Google physicians of color in the area.

  • Google health-grades and reviews on provider prior to the appointment.

In an inpatient setting she recommends similarly (as stated before) be persistent.

  • Document.

  • Ask the nurse questions constantly.

  • Ask to speak to the charge nurse or social workers, or case managers.

  • Reach out to patient safety, risk management.

Readers, it is important to remember that our silence is often what hurts us most. Some of us choose to suffer in silence under the pretense that we need to be strong for others. We must also take care of ourselves as well. In most clinical settings, a person’s primary care physician may only have time for a brisk and not-so-thorough examination/conversation with their patient. It is important that patients are straight forward and to-the-point with their PCP when they feel something is wrong with their body even if they feel fine at the time of their visit.

Once again reader, it is important that we remember to:

  • Talk! A close mouth does not get fed. “How have you been?” or “How are you feeling?” from a Dr. is the same as “How may I help you today?” That is your time to speak and be heard, so be assertive.

  • Ask as many questions as needed. Your issue may be as simple as changing medications or as serious as an outpatient procedure with at home bed rest. ASK!

  • Make note of your doctor's attitude or bedside manner. Does he or she quickly brush off your concerns and seem ready to send you on your way, or do they seem concerned in what you have to say about your condition?

Remember, you as the patient know your own body better than the doctor does and you want to build a working relationship with someone who has the betterment of your health in mind.

Lastly, and most importantly:

  • Have documentation of your medical history at the ready for yourself. Document your medical visits. Have the relevant information at hand for yourself.

Self-preservation is the first rule of nature. It is important that each of us in our community become proactive and involved with our individual health. Take the time to research for the right doctor.

And take care of yourselves.

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