Serena Williams recently gave an interview to Vogue magazine in which she recounted her experience of a postpartum pregnancy complication. In the process of recovering from her cesarean section, Williams suffered a pulmonary embolism.
. . . [W]hile recovering in the hospital, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. 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. 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!”
Serena Williams’s personal history of blood clots is public knowledge, and her wealth allows for her to access private, exclusive health care.
If even Serena Williams’s concerns are dismissed, what hope do my patients who are low-income, predominantly Black and brown, and socially and financially disadvantaged, have of being heard?
Williams’s story was alarming, and distressing, but not entirely surprising.
I thought to myself, “THIS is why Black women are dying from pregnancy.”
We have an emerging crisis for reproductive health in the United States.
We are currently the only country in the world where maternal mortality rates have risen despite improvements in health care. Women are already dying needlessly, with Black women disproportionately impacted because they are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than their white counterparts.
Notably, these racial disparities persist even when socioeconomic status is accounted for. It is becoming increasingly clear that racism and unconscious bias play a role in driving these disparities. Embedded in the social fabric of our nation is the tendency to ignore the voice of women of color; discount their suffering, dismiss their concerns, and erase their experiences.
These are the realities that make Black women vulnerable to having their complaints overlooked during pregnancy, labor, and after delivery.
Studies show that medical students believe that Black people experience pain differently, and that Black people even have thicker skin than white people. Couple this with stereotypes of poor character, competence, and intellect; and it is no surprise that Black women’s complaints of pain or suffering are at risk of being minimized or even belittled by providers.
And the current political climate only makes life harder for Black women. When white supremacists are called good people, but #BlackLivesMatters advocates are considered terrorists and developing nations are called s%!*holes, unconscious bias blooms into full blown conscious discrimination and xenophobia. But beyond the climate of bigotry, the administration has aggressively pursued an agenda that is anti-women’s health. It’s been estimated that one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided if women who wanted effective contraception had access to it.
Unfortunately, the current administration is intent on is making it harder to prevent unintended pregnancy, harder to have a healthy pregnancy, and harder to raise a family. It is clear they will treat the health, safety, and lives of not only mothers but all women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQ people as disposable. Their attacks on women’s reproductive health and rights put women’s lives at risk.
As an Indiana licensed obstetrician and gynecologist, I am proud to support women.
As a health care provider for underserved communities, I believe that everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, should be empowered with the knowledge, tools, and information to become parents if and when they want, and to have access to the sexual and reproductive health care that they need.
As a women’s health advocate, I am fighting for a world where all people—regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other identities—can shape their families and raise their children in safe spaces, free from violence and fear.
And as an African American woman, I wholeheartedly support the reproductive justice agenda: Ensuring that all people have the right to have children, to not have children, and to parent children in safe and sustainable communities.
I was relieved to be reading Serena Williams’s delivery story and not her obituary. Because if she had not felt that she could push back and demand to be heard, her story may have ended very differently.