The first time I was pregnant, I went to the emergency room no less than two dozen times. You would think after four or five times my doctors would have been alarmed. Instead they kept sending me home each time with the directive to rest. As a single mom, I didn’t have the luxury of rest. I had to work and save my paid leave for when my baby was born.
I went to the hospital for various reasons. Extreme exhaustion, abdominal pain, and nonstop vomiting were scary to me as a first time mom. Each time, I went in for appointments with my OBGYN team, I begged for answers. I got none, and the entire time, I felt like no one was listening to me. Occasionally, I would get a sympathetic nurse’s aide who would sympathize with me and try to make me comfortable, but as soon as the doctor came in, they would brush my fears aside and assure me that everything was fine.
Inevitably, after my appointments, I would feel horrible and end up back at the hospital within days.
Finally, after falling down a set of stairs because I was dizzy from low blood sugar, I decided that enough was enough. I laid out my clothes that night with the intention of going to the emergency room the next morning. I was not going to leave until they admitted me and found out what was wrong.
Although it was my first pregnancy, I knew what I was going through was not normal. I couldn’t take a shower without needing a nap afterwards. It was a struggle to catch my breath after doing simple tasks. I had dizzy spells, and I couldn’t keep any food down. After five months of feeling like this and having my concerns ignored, I knew I had to do something before I lost my baby.
The next morning, I called a cab to take me to the hospital. I went in with my overnight bag and stubborn will. I didn’t know how the day would end, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be coming home that night. I was triaged pretty quickly and then taken to a special waiting room for pregnant women. The nurses there were kind and made sure I had ice water and blankets as I sat in the chair waiting for a bed to open up.
Finally after nearly four hours, I was led into an examination room. I lay on a bed for several hours. A few friends stopped by to check on me, and after about eight hours of being in the hospital, one of my doctors finally walked in. There was no apology, no alarm for my situation, but rather annoyance on her face.
“Pregnancy is uncomfortable,” the doctor said to me after I explained what was going on.
I couldn’t believe how dismissive she was to me. I’d spent the entire day in the hospital, and that was her response? I was livid. Not caring if I sounded rude, I asked her if she had any children. When she said she didn’t, I sat back in my bed, crossed my arms and told her I wasn’t leaving. She looked at me, rolled her eyes, and walked out.
I never expected pregnancy to be a cakewalk, but women are pregnant and go about their daily lives all the time. In fact, years ago women in my family would be in the field, pregnant, and picking tobacco. Certainly I should have been able to sit at a desk in front of a computer and work. But I wasn’t, and I knew something was wrong.
A few minutes later, a black midwife came in to talk to me. She looked at my chart and asked if I’d had a blood workup recently. I had not, so she ordered one, and let me know that I would have a bed for the night.
I ended up staying in the hospital for three days. Once the hospital staff observed my vomiting, they diagnosed me with hyperemesis gravidum and prescribed medicine to give me some relief. More importantly, they discovered that I was severely anemic. I had no energy because I needed iron. My blood pressure was extremely low, which was why I was dizzy all the time.
Because I was scheduled to have a C-section, the OBGYN team was concerned about getting my iron levels to a reasonable level. They sent me to a hematologist to come up with a plan, and within a few days I felt better.
If only my doctors had listened to me, I could have actually enjoyed the first few months of my pregnancy. Instead, I spent all that time miserable, shuffling back and forth to the hospital trying to get someone to take my concerns seriously. And I’m not alone in this either. Medical bias is a concern for many pregnant black women. Even Serena Williams, a world champion and celebrity has experienced it. In fact, black mothers in the U.S. are dying at a rate of three to four times more than the rate of white mothers.
During my first night in the hospital, the mother in the bed next to me was in labor. Another black woman, she was on bedrest because she wasn’t due for another month. As she screamed in pain, a nurse walked in and told her to calm down. A few minutes later, I saw blood on her sheets and pressed the call button to explain what was going on. Hospital staff rushed into the room then, and wheeled her off. Later, I asked how she was doing, and my nurse told me that the mom had delivered her baby.
Can you imagine how hard it is to get a doctor to listen to listen to black women if they can’t even hear us when we’re screaming?
The only way to change this is to hold doctors accountable and to learn to relentlessly advocate for ourselves. I didn’t know that I could file a report against the medical team that kept ignoring my concerns. I was young and alone, and it was by pure chance that I kept pushing for answers. There are so many women who just didn’t have the strength. They go in to have a baby, and they don’t survive to meet them.
I have a black female OBGYN now. She’s thoughtful, efficient, and I always feel like she’s listening to me. I’m honestly scared to have a white doctor after what I went through. I know now how important it is to have someone who sees the value in me as a human to be in charge of my care.