One Black woman’s maternal health journey taught her how her personal experience was actually systemic.
This post is by Neatrice Holmes, a Planned Parenthood volunteer in Baltimore. We’re sharing it as part of Black Maternal Health Week — an initiative spearheaded by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) in which Planned Parenthood is joining patients, providers, and advocates across the country in lifting up the need for maternal health research that centers Black women.
Last June, I found out I was seven weeks pregnant. I'd always been told by doctors that I couldn’t have children, so this was completely unexpected. I was excited to embark on this new journey, and to raise a child with my partner.
My first meeting with my obstetrician seemed normal and routine. We went through all the regular tests and I was told that my pregnancy was considered “high risk” because of my age. Though I had wanted a Black doctor, like my usual primary-care physician, I still left feeling confident that I was in good hands.
By the second appointment, everything had shifted.
Though my obstetrician was great, it was clear that other people in the hospital didn’t care. Suddenly my prenatal visits were rushed, tense, and demeaning. Despite being a pregnant patient over the age of 35, nurses weren’t taking my concerns seriously. Questions I had about aches and pains were dismissed. They didn’t treat me as a high-risk patient and I didn’t get the care I deserved.
When I went to get genetic testing, I was told there was an abnormality and if I had a baby, it might not live. It was only when I started asking questions and advocating for myself that the counselor admitted there was a margin of error and there were other, more precise tests we could do.
I was also subject to pre-judging. They automatically assumed I did not have insurance or used Medicaid, even though I have a full-time job as an insurance manager, working with patients with kidney disease, and have medical coverage through my employer. When I started wearing scrubs in an effort to be more comfortable, the assumption was that I didn’t have a college degree and worked in a hospital as an assistant. Of course, if any of those things were true, I would have still deserved competent medical care –– what stung was that they didn’t take the time to ask about my situation or experiences. They took one look at me and wrote my story themselves. That’s not how health care should work.
They didn’t take the time to ask about my situation or experiences. They took one look at me and wrote my story themselves. That’s not how health care should work.–Neatrice Holmes
Near the end of the first trimester, I was sent to another hospital for a fetal echocardiogram. My partner and I arrived anxious and excited to hear the heartbeat. We couldn’t have imagined what was to come.
As I took my clothes off, the doctor noticed a scar I have from a medical procedure and screeched, “what is THAT?” I’m very sensitive to touch and when I recoiled slightly as she was touching me, she coldly asked why I was flinching –– completely oblivious to the fact that every patient is different.
The ultrasound showed there was no heartbeat, and my heart sunk. There was no compassion in the doctor’s voice when she gave me the news and none when I frantically asked if they could check again.
My head spun as my partner started crying and my body had an immediate physical response to the trauma: I began vomiting on the table.
All the doctor said was, “Why are you throwing up? Are you sick?”
As I dragged myself to the bathroom, my doctor made no move to assist me, no move to console my partner.
The doctor called for three nurses and as they peered in on me in the bathroom – by now throwing up and dealing with diarrhea –– all they said was, “what’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? What’s wrong?
The ultrasound showed there was no heartbeat, and my heart sunk. There was no compassion in the doctor’s voice when she gave me the news.–Neatrice Holmes
I had just found that the future I had imagined with my baby was over. My body was convulsing. My partner and I were being treated like we were worthless, without an ounce of compassion. And they were asking me what was wrong.
I was told I would need to have a dilation and curettage procedure, and sent home with medication to soften my cervix. I was told I’d experience some minor cramps that could expel some fetal tissue. They said to call the on-call nurse if I had any issues.
What they didn’t say was that there was a possibility I could have labor-like cramps that would cause me to expel nearly all the fetal tissue at home. At 3 a.m. the next morning, I began bleeding.
Completely unprepared, I woke my partner and made my way to the bathroom. I waited at first to call the on-call nurse, even as the pain of my cramps grew and grew. I had no idea that this wasn’t normal. I waited as long as I could, until the cramps became so acute that it felt like labor — until I had a miscarriage.
Distraught, I finally made the call but the nurse said to only come in if I couldn’t control the bleeding, adding: “… but it doesn’t sound like you need to come in.”
I felt like me and my child were thrown away –– and no one should have to feel like that.– Neatrice Holmes
I expected that I could have a service, to honor the life I had planned to bring into this world. But I never even got the option. When I brought the remains of my pregnancy in the next day, the hospital lost them during routine lab work. To this day, I don’t understand how that could happen but I was too depressed to push the issue.
I felt like me and my child were thrown away –– and no one should have to feel like that.
It wasn’t until I had this experience that I started learning more about Black women’s maternal health. I kept buying books and researching –– and learned that what I thought was a personal experience was actually systemic.
Black women are dying at a rapid rate, and even more are having traumatic maternal health experiences. In too many cases, racism and implicit bias are to blame. There’s a long history of medical mistreatment of Black people in this country, rooted in slavery. Doctors and nurses think we have a superpower for pain; they think were workhorses; they even used to experiment on us.
It’s hard to put into words just how I was treated. So much of it was in the little details that are felt so clearly but impossible to prove. I’m sharing my story because as horrifying as it is, I know that some women have even died from poor maternal health care. It’s crucial that we shine a light on this and hold health care providers accountable.
Black women and Black mothers deserve better. And we won’t be silent until we have the health care we deserve.
Neatrice Holmes is a storyteller from Baltimore, Maryland, where she volunteers with her local Planned Parenthood. Currently she is an insurance counselor, community healing advocate, community activist, Reiki practitioner, and LEAP (Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner) trainer with the LEAP Institute. She was inspired to share her story and fight for reproductive health care when Senator Kamala Harris introduced a bill aimed at reducing racial disparities in maternal mortality among Black women.