Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Kamsi Iloeje
An internationally renowned tennis star, Serena Williams is widely recognized as one of the best athletes of our generation, possibly of all time. One of her greatest accomplishments, however, occurred off the court this past year on September 1, 2017, when she gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr. What followed, unfortunately, was a series of health complications; most notably, Williams began to experience shortness of breath the following day due to a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, in her leg. Williams, who had a history of blood clots, told her closest nurse that she needed a CT scan and a heparin drip. The nurse instead invited a doctor to perform an ultrasound, and did not take further actions. It wasn’t until Williams actively began insisting on medical attention that the nurse took her more seriously. When she requested another appointment with the doctor, a CT scan was performed, where doctors discovered blood clots in her lungs, a large, life-threatening hematoma in her abdomen, and hemorrhaging at the site of her C-section. Eventually, a filler was inserted into one of her veins to prevent future blood clots from traveling to her lungs. After months of rest and treatment, Serena’s health considerably improved, but her story is, unfortunately, not unique.
According to The Center for American Progress, “African-American women are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth than non-Hispanic white women, and socioeconomic status, education, and other factors do not protect against this disparity.” Clearly, there exist racial disparities in the American healthcare system that affect pregnant black women, but they do not explain the gaps that exist in maternal mortality rates.
One factor has to do with reliable health care. 46.1% of single black women with children live in poverty, generally translating to homelessness or a life in low-income neighborhoods, where access to safe and reliable hospitals and doctors is relatively scarce. In many impoverished communities, the few hospitals available are closing down, limiting the number of options available for prenatal care, safe maternity wards, and other similar resources, leading to a staggering lack of reliable reproductive health care. In addition, access to contraceptives like abortions and STI screenings can be extremely difficult for African-American women to obtain due to financial hardships, putting them in increased risk during and after pregnancy.
Another factor has to do with the types of doctors and healthcare professionals that are available for black women. Often times, health issues and complications arise because medical professionals not only ignore the needs of African-American female patients, but also fail to believe the patient when reporting their symptoms. In an ABC interview posted on Twitter on May 19, 2018, Dr. Neel Shah admitted to the lack of belief in black women, saying, “African-American women are less believed when they express...concerns about their symptoms, particularly around pain.” This lack of belief stems from inherent racial and sexual discrimination, as well as a cultural barrier and difference in demographics that often exist between doctor and patient.
What can be done to address this issue? The medical community must acknowledge that discrimination against black women exists and has existed for many years. Serena Williams, Beyoncé, and other celebrities have opened people’s eyes to this issue by sharing their stories, but the healthcare system as a whole needs to change at its core; an important first step would be ensuring that reliable healthcare services are available in underserved communities and that doctors receive proper training on how to treat patients of color. These changes, as well as many others, will open the gates for safer and healthier generations of African-American women in America’s healthcare systems.