Tori Bowie the latest tragic example of deficiencies in health care for Black women

It was supposed to be a “simple” pregnancy for my wife and me.

The birth of our second child was originally slated to go like the previous pregnancy, with a quick hospital stay. As the hours went by, I became concerned and my thoughts transitioned to a miscarriage we had before the birth of our first baby.

The second successful pregnancy didn’t go quite like the first because the umbilical cord had become wrapped around his neck, which we found out after my wife decided to undergo an emergency C-section. We had the baby’s name chosen before that dramatic turn of events, a moniker that meant “doctor” and “healer” – Asa.

I couldn’t imagine coming home from the hospital without my wife.

When I heard about the tragedy of U.S. Olympic sprinter Tori Bowie and how she died from childbirth complications, my heart sank, weighted by anger and despair. It reminded me of what happened to April Valentine, a 31-year-old woman who died after an emergency C-section in January. Valentine’s family and friends said her complaints of pain had been ignored by hospital staff. Believe Black women, we are told.

I can’t shake the similitude of believing Black women and Black Lives Matter, because there are times such as these when they feel like platitudes. BLM is seen as a battle cry, an act of defense – reactionary. There is a fullness to BLM that we don’t discuss – the components of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I reserve a special anger when this country’s racism falls violently and unrepentantly on women and children. When people talk about social justice, march in the street, protest, they are doing so not just in the name of hope and preventing harm. We are noting deficiencies across the spectrum – housing and health care.

Preeclampsia is the devil. It is medically defined as a serious condition that can occur after the 20th week of pregnancy or after birth. It can cause high blood pressure, or worse, organ failure. Now this is where the devil gets into the details. Conversations about Black women and hypertension are quickly dismissed, filed under “business as usual.” Folks are so accustomed to calling our women angry, loud and fat that they don’t understand the ramifications of how stereotypes play out under duress.

Here’s a hint: When it comes to America and how it treats Black folks, it plays out under “business as usual.”

From left to right: Allyson Felix, English Gardner, Tianna Bartoletta and Tori Bowie of the United States celebrate winning gold in the women’s 4 x 100 meter relay final at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 19, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.

Ian Walton/Getty Images

This country touts its “exceptionalism.” Certainly, Bowie and her record-setting, gold-winning 4×100 relay teammates fit that description. And for all of their speed, three out of four of them couldn’t run away quickly enough from this country’s dismal rates regarding Black maternal mortality. 

Tianna Madison, Bowie’s teammate, let it rip via Instagram:

“THREE (3) of the FOUR (4) of us who ran on the SECOND fastest 4x100m relay of all time, the 2016 Olympic Champions have nearly died or died in childbirth,” she posted. “WTF. Why? Black women have the HIGHEST maternal mortality rate. 3 times higher than white women. And the more educated the black woman, the higher her mortality rate becomes.” 

Her testimony became more powerful – and dreadful: “In fact, even though I went into labor at 26 weeks we went to the hospital with my medical advance directive AND my will. Additionally I had a VERY tough conversation with @cwryaniii about who to save if it came down to it. I was NOT AT ALL confident that I’d be coming home.”

I wish accomplished and famous testimonies were enough. Had they been sufficient, something might have been done when Bowie and Madison’s teammate, track icon Allyson Felix, described her pregnancy complications. Or perhaps when the greatest of all time, tennis great Serena Williams, shared her maternity horror story. Nope. Still business as usual.

I almost didn’t write this column in the name of status quo. Felt hopeless. Didn’t know if what I said might be deficient. How did rapper Offset put it? “All men should stay out of women business. Because that’s women business.” It’s all of our business now.

The men of Howard’s basketball team have made it their business. So did their coach, Kenneth Blakeney, in an open letter:

All season long, our program has engaged in a social justice project centered on black maternal health advocacy. As a 51-year-old black man I had never really delved deeply into the black maternal health crisis in this country until our players decided to advocate on this issue. Moments like Monday are sobering reminders that black women, even those in peak physical shape, still face a daunting challenge when becoming pregnant as they are 3x more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications.

Pregnancy and bringing life into this world should be a moment of pure happiness, but for many black women it is an experience rife with fear and uncertainty. I challenge my male colleagues in sports to stand alongside black women in amplifying this issue in hopes of creating positive change moving forward.

Tori Bowie of the United States celebrates after the women’s 100m final of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games at the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 13, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

History suggests that we will have to be the change we are looking for. We desperately need our health care programs to be at full strength – flagship institutions such as the one at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. When I hear about the fate of nursing programs such as the one at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where musician Gil Scott-Heron met his brother in music, Brian Jackson, I understand how difficult it makes the road to uplift the next generation of Black nurses.

One of the mothers of the movement saw the importance of Black healthcare professionals almost 50 years ago in Charleston, South Carolina. Close to a year after her husband Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Coretta Scott King participated in the Charleston hospital strike, which some consider to be the beginning of a civil rights movement that focused on workers. On April 20, 1969, Scott King delivered an address at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a site that would be known for a tragedy in 2015. “I feel that the Black woman in our nation, the Black working woman, is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women,” she said that day.

Labor – oftentimes it is the only resource the worker has in negotiations. But labor is not life. Only a few weeks ago, the Association of Black Women Physicians posted a memorial to Nakita Mortimer, who died by suicide in May in New York, with a call for change:

“The culture of medicine must shift. Realistic work hours, demands and responsibilities, access to confidential mental health services, commitment to physician wellness and inclusive, nontoxic work environments all need to become a part of a healthy normalization for our profession. This is also how we optimize the care we provide for our patients and support equitable health outcomes.”

My wife and sister-in-law, who are both mothers, are going to school to be nurses. It is an interesting dichotomy to watch them as caretakers, both professionally and personally. They are preparing themselves for a world that vastly underrates them and underappreciates them as mothers and workers.

When it comes to Black women, the idea of labor hits differently. They shouldn’t have to bear that responsibility alone.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.

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