Going into labor. For those who’ve lived it, just the sound of that word “labor” brings a flood of thoughts, images and emotions.
For me, I see three beautiful faces. I feel the adrenaline, the joy and the uncontrollable tears that erupt the moment you hear that first cry. I also see the image of three doctors, none of whom were my doctor, walking into my room a few short hours after giving birth by c-section to my firstborn, Grace. The three marched in like a firing squad. They had bad news.
“We need to tell you it seems your daughter has a heart defect, an infection and an extra 21st chromosome, or Down Syndrome.”
Three direct shots aimed straight at my heart with not so much as a smile, an “I’m sorry” or an ounce of emotion. They left in the same military fashion in which they came, never to be seen again.
These words turned the most glorious day of my life into one of the darkest I’ve ever faced. My world came to a screeching halt as my still-drug induced brain struggled to process this trifecta of life-altering information.
Now, seven years and two healthy deliveries later, I’ve found my footing as a mom. I’ve learned a thing or two since the day I met Grace. I’ve learned about the rights of the mother, the care and honor that every woman deserves and the decisions every woman has a right to make on her journey of giving birth.
I’ve also learned that just like every other sector of our society, the world of obstetrics and prenatal medicine is infused with much more than poor bedside manners like those I encountered the day I met Grace. This vital sector of medical health in our country is also deeply affected by discrimination, injustice and the antihuman element of racism.
When we began this journey to all 50 states on a quest to discover what lies at the heart of our divisions in America, I expected to hear a lot about politics, including personal stories from the right and from the left regarding policies that have driven wedges between us.
What I did not expect was to come face to face with a division that run past politics, all the way down to the melanin in our skin, and to find it at the heart of a subject I hold so dear; childbirth.
I’m bearing in mind, as we come up on 100 years of voting rights for women in America, that we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. While being female may still carry a certain element of disadvantage, even in today’s America, it is the incredible honor of women alone to carry and usher in new life. It is one of the scariest, craziest and most glorious things we women get to do.
But black women in this country are not getting to enjoy that honor in the way white women are, dying and losing their babies at an alarmingly high rate in pregnancy and childbirth. Extensive studies show that this is not a result, as some might assume, of the mothers’ ignorance, poverty or heredity, but that it is undeniably and intrinsically linked to race.
A recent podcast from The Daily (above), of the The New York Times, delves into the story of one black American mom who nearly lost her own life and did lose the life of her baby as a direct result of racist neglect on the part of medical professionals.
Sadly, I can personally confirm that this type of care is not isolated, but is in fact systemic.
I too connected with a black mom in Tulsa named Mechelle and had the chance to hear about the day she gave birth to her first born.
She was 27 weeks pregnant and shopping with her dad for baby clothes when her water broke. He rushed her to the hospital where she was quickly checked by a nurse upon arrival. The woman brashly accused Mechelle, an unwed mother on SoonerCare (Oklahoma Medicaid), of not knowing her own body, telling her she was not in labor and then barged out the door.
Over the next several hours, Mechelle lay on that table laboring alone. Though she was surrounded by state of the art equipment and drugs to ease her pain and monitor her and her baby, she was given none.
Screams for help during contractions went unanswered as nurses and doctors passed her room without a word. When the pain became too great, and Mechelle nearly passed out from exhaustion, she gave one final blood curdling cry. A nurse came in to find Mechelle’s baby crowning, but it was too late. The baby had been in distress for too long. Mechelle gave birth that day to a perfectly formed, stillborn baby girl.
Regardless of how poorly I was treated by doctors with zero bedside manners at the birth of my firstborn, what Mechelle described of her experience left me in total shock and horror.
This happened in America? This happened to someone my age in America? I could hardly fathom that people seemingly devoted to the care of women and babies could tolerate evil like this, much less be the perpetrators of it.
A life was lost, and for what? Mechelle could have been sitting next to her daughter, sharing the story with me of how she was cared for that day, and how the medical team at that hospital pulled out every stop to deliver her daughter safely, much like my third delivery with a doctor who loved me and cared for me like his own daughter as I delivered our son.
But that’s not how her story went, because Mechelle is black.
Race is the only reason Mechelle can’t gaze into the eyes of her firstborn, watch her graduate, get married, hold those grandchildren she would have had. It was all stolen from her in a moment.
I know there are plenty of people out there who will hear this story and actually believe that Mechelle’s baby and the baby lost by the woman in the The Daily story are just the inevitable casualties of American infant mortality. But I would argue that the numbers don’t lie. The fact that black women and their babies die in America at a much higher rate is no coincidence, but rather a direct result of discriminatory medical practices that are widespread in this country.
Are all medical professionals racists? Of course not. There are many men and women taking these oaths who love and value all of their patients regardless of skin color or socio-economic status. But the obvious reality is that this is not true of all doctors and nurses caring for women who are expecting.
So for everyone who aches right now all the way down to your toes because of the injustice these stories stir in your heart and the perpetuated insanity of not valuing black lives, I want to say something.
I believe it is time to recognize that we, America, the greatest country in the world, have a problem.
We have a problem when doctors who swear an oath to “Treat the ill to the best of one’s ability” is lost on those of a deeper pigmentation or a lower pay check. We have a problem when we rank 32nd out of the 35 wealthiest countries in the world in infant mortality, and this as a direct result of mostly black babies lost in childbirth. Our problem is not in our policies, or in our government. Our problem is in our hearts. We Americans have a heart problem.
The doctors and nurses that day didn’t see a woman giving birth to a baby when they looked at my friend Mechelle. They just saw black, poor and therefore unworthy. We can shudder at that reality, but the truth is, many of us carry that reality around in our hearts at some level. I know I was. But I didn’t know it.
I didn’t know I had trouble seeing value when I looked at a person living on welfare, or when I looked at a person strung out on drugs, or when I looked at a felon or an illegal immigrant. I didn’t know I carried around a certain amount of fear and caution when I saw a black male in my vicinity, or a certain level of shock when I saw people of color having incredible success financially. This is the kind of stuff you may feel for a moment and then stuff it back down…it’s the stuff we don’t talk about. But now it is time.
For years I’ve walked around unknowingly carrying racism in my heart, but I simply did not feel the courage or the necessity to acknowledge this, much less process it. Meeting Mechelle changed that for me.
It is time to honor all women, all mothers, all noble carriers of the greatest gift anyone can give. It is time to say with an emphatic “yes!” that black lives do matter. Mechelle matters to me and so does her baby.
For the longest time I did not understand the need to say that black lives matter, but now I do. It was the absence of value for Mechelle and her baby that led to the loss of a life…a black life. This is why it is important to say that black lives matter. Because they really, really do.
And to my friend, Mechelle, who was brave enough to share her most precious story with me, I’ve been eternally changed by you and am forever grateful that you set me free from the chains of racism and helped me see the truth. You are my hero, and I know some day you will see your daughter again, and every tear will be wiped away with unspeakable joy.
Until then, we have some work to do. Join us the fight to break every chain of racism in America so we can rise up and be one, undivided nation. It starts in your own heart. #blacklivesmattertome #Undividednation