My heart is heavy as I read the story of a mother dying from childbirth. Shalon was a successful professional with two Master Degrees and dual-subject Ph.D. She had a wonderful career as an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Shalon collapsed on January 24, 2016, at home and never recovered consciousness.
Shalon Irving was a 36-year-old Black woman who died three weeks after giving birth to her daughter. (4)
The Stories of Loss
If you Google black maternal mortality over 10 articles written in 2017 immediately pop up. (1) The stories are coming fast; they give the details of Black women hemorrhaging, collapsing and dying after giving birth. The stories tell the pain of the families and babies who are left behind to grieve and to try and make sense of what happened.(2)
Within the stories, I hear pregnant and postpartum Black women reaching out for help.
Shalon Irving’s Story
Shalon Irving’s story tells of a new mother who birthed by Cesarean section. (4)
Shalon became hypertensive after her birth. On Jan. 16th her blood pressure was 158/100, Jan. 18th, 174/118, and Jan. 24th, 163/99.
She developed high blood pressure, swollen legs and mild headaches after her birth. She made postnatal visits to her hospital. She told them, “something is wrong.” Her symptoms were never taken seriously.
Shalon’s autopsy confirmed her cause of death as heart damage consistent with hypertension. Her death was deemed complications of high blood pressure.
Shalon’s death could have been prevented.
The Common Thread in Black Maternal Mortality
The common thread is:
- Ignoring Black women’s plea for medical attention.
- The unconscious bias against Black women.
- Dismissing the health care needs of pregnant and postpartum Black women.
- Not believing Black women when they say, “something is wrong.”
- Allowing Black postpartum mothers to die.
Trust Black Women Partnership
An immediate solution to begin reducing the Black maternal mortality is to trust Black women.(6)
Trust Black Women Partnership was formed in 2014 by Sister Song, Inc and others to defend Black women’s right to Reproductive Justice(RJ). Reproductive Justice is the right to choose when, where, with whom, and how to birth. It includes the right to raise babies and children in a healthy, productive and caring environment. The right to exclusive breastfeeding. It includes having respectable, culturally competent and high-quality postpartum care for women to thrive during their postpartum period.
It is time to “Trust Black Women.” Listen to them. Act on their recommendations. They know their bodies. They know when something is wrong.
“Maternal Mortality can be prevented. The CDC Foundation states that approximately 60 percent of maternal deaths could be avoided. The leading causes of maternal death—hemorrhage and preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-induced disorder and is connected to high blood pressure. Both causes—of hemorrhage and hypertension are preventable in most cases.” (2)
By listening and responding to the requests of Black women, their lives can be saved. Black women are not predisposed to maternal mortality. Neglect is the problem.
What Can Pregnant Women Do?
- Register with a Certified Nurse Midwife for a hospital birth
- Register with a Midwife or a Certified Professional Midwife for a homebirth
- Consider birthing at a birth center
- Learn the causes of Black infant and maternal mortality
- Practice traditional southern Black postpartum care
- Honor the six-weeks postpartum period, rest, sleep, stay home, ask for help, reduce all stress
- Get your blood pressure read regularly
- Keep records of your blood pressure readings
- Demand medical treatment for all concerns
- Talk with the hospital patient advocate to represent your needs
- Reduce Cesarean sections and advocate for VBAC’s
- Have a doula for your pregnancy, labor, and postpartum care
- Create a high-risk team with an OB specialist, a midwife, and a doula for comprehensive and culturally competent care (5)
- Learn the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia
- Get and stay healthy
- Support the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA): Download the toolkit here
- Support scholarship funds to increase the number Black doctors, nurses, midwives, and doulas.
- Insist on regular culture competency training for all healthcare professionals and measure the outcomes of patient surveys.
- Create a grievance policy for women/people to document their birth and postpartum experience.
- Arm yourself with knowledge and be prepared to advocate for yourself.
- Don’t believe the hype that Black women can’t birth and live.
- Lost Mothers: Maternal Mortality in The U.S.
- A Matter Of Life & Death: Why Are Black Women In The U.S. More Likely To Die During Or After Childbirth?
- Discrimination In America: Experiences And Views Of African Americans
- Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why
- Black doulas, midwives, and reproductive health advocates step up in response to rising black maternal deaths
- Trust Black Women