Serena Williams wrote about her near-death experience after giving birth to her daughter in this month’s issue of Elle magazine.
Williams had an emergency C-section. An emergency C-section is scary enough, but Williams’ complications didn’t end there. In fact, what happened afterward is where things took a harrowing turn. Williams likely fainted several times (she’s not certain because she doesn’t remember), and she experienced temporary paralysis of her legs as well as nonstop coughing that led to ruptured stitches. At risk for blood clots, doctors learned the coughing was caused by an embolism, a clot in one of her arteries. They also found a hematoma, a collection of blood outside the blood vessels, in her abdomen as well as more clots.
If Williams hadn’t been persistent in voicing her concerns — and someone finally listening to those concerns — she likely wouldn’t be alive today.
Williams is still here to tell her story. Unfortunately, so many Black women aren’t. Dr. Chaniece Wallace, pediatric chief resident at Indiana University’s medical school, isn’t. Wallace died in October 2020. Kira Johnson, daughter-in-law of TV’s Judge Glenda Hatchett, isn’t here. Johnson died after a C-section delivery in April 2016. Shalon Irving, a 36-year-old epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, isn’t here. Irving died after a C-section delivery in 2017. And there are many other Black women who can’t share their stories of almost dying but surviving to tell the tale.
In 2019, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 44.0 deaths per 100,000 live births. In 2020, that rate increased to 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. While Black women account for a high number of deaths related to child birth, it’s a national problem that is moving in the wrong direction as the U.S. maternal mortality rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020 compared to 20.1 in 2019.
In Indiana, about 53 Black mothers die per 100,000 births every year, and 42 white moms die per 100,000 births.
This is a problem that cuts across racial demographics, but it is especially concerning for Black women because it cuts across socioeconomic demographics for us as well. I’m going to assume Wallace and Irving were affluent. I don’t have to assume with Johnson as her mother-in-law has made this clear. I’m going to assume they and Williams had good health care. I’m also going to assume they did things “right,” and by that I mean went to the doctor, listened to instructions and tried to lead healthy lives in order to have a healthy baby. It didn’t matter.
That is the problem for so many women, especially Black women, factors outside of us play a role in whether we live or die delivering our babies. Racism, sexism, lack of care and accessibility to care are just some of the issues affecting our care and our lives. In this modern, well-equipped, state-of-the-art society we live in — where the U.S. is supposed to be the best — you wouldn’t think death during or after child birth is still such a risk. But guess what? Maternal mortality, but specifically Black maternal mortality, is a problem in the United States. Other pregnant women and new moms in other wealthy countries fare much better.
All these reasons and more are why we must continually bring awareness to the issue. This week, April 11-17, is Black Maternal Health Week, and this year’s theme is “Building for Liberation: Centering Black Mamas, Black Families and Black Systems of Care.” Founded by Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Maternal Health Week was recognized by the White House in 2021.
As a woman who is Black, a mother and has had two C-sections (one an emergency), these stories are personal. I can’t help but empathize with the families of Wallace, Johnson and Irving. I can’t help but think of my experience while reading about Williams’. The tragedy is there doesn’t have to be a tragedy when giving birth; so many of these deaths or near misses are preventable.
Government and the health care industry have made inroads in caring for Black moms, but we still have a long way to go. Let’s pray we get there sooner than later so we can save more lives.