By Elizabeth Dawes Gay, MPH
I’ve studied Black maternal health for years and interviewed experts about why Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The most important people I’ve talked to are Black mamas, like Keyona, who have experienced this crisis first hand.
Too many Black lives have been lost. It’s time we join together to say: Black mamas deserve to survive pregnancy and childbirth.
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Keyona had been going to all her prenatal appointments, taking vitamins, and never felt sick during her pregnancy– until a severe headache sent her to the emergency room. Even though she hadn’t experienced symptoms of being in labor and wasn’t due for another month, the doctor informed her that the baby’s abnormal heart rate necessitated an emergency c-section.
As they made incisions for the emergency surgery, she felt intense pain– they hadn’t administered pain medicine at the start of the procedure. Then, she woke up to a nurse telling her: “Your baby’s going to die anyway, so you can pull the plug if you want.”
Keyona’s son survived the premature birth, but the trauma that Keyona endured at the hospital left her terrified by the prospect of giving birth again. Keyona’s story is not unique. Black women are more likely than white women to experience pregnancy-related complications, to give birth to a premature baby, and have a stillborn infant.
Research shows that toxic stress from racism, discrimination, poverty and oppression takes a toll on our mental and physical health– and it’s causing a major crisis in maternal health. Racism in our society can be a death sentence for Black mamas and their children.
Thankfully, Keyona’s son is healthy and vibrant today but he also experiences seizures. She advocates fiercely to ensure her son gets the education and support he needs. Keyona’s journey has been challenging but she uses her story and experience to provide a safe space for others navigating such challenges in her work as a doula with the Baltimore Community Doula Program.
Elizabeth Dawes Gay is the Steering Committee Chair of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance that looks to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice. For more information on their work, vist their website at https://blackmamasmatter.org/