‘Break the silence’: A project that aims to better understand NC’s Black maternal health crisis

Black Maternal Health

The U.S. is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for pregnant Black women. That’s why we’re launching the Cardinal & Pine Black maternal health project. (Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

May 1, 2024

Our goal is to examine the deep roots of the Black maternal health crisis in North Carolina, offer important resources, and amplify the personal stories behind the numbers.

Every April, Americans take one week to acknowledge a crisis that has plagued the country for hundreds of years: The United States is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for pregnant Black women.

Few industrialized countries have as high a maternal death rate as the US, and the numbers are even worse for Black women, who are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Starting in 2021, the Biden administration designated seven days in April as Black Maternal Health Week, a time to call attention to the historic problem, give women a forum to be heard, and offer others the help they need.

But both the problem and the efforts to solve it are far bigger than seven days. So throughout May – and beyond – Cardinal & Pine will be sharing stories and other content that examines the deep roots and causes, amplifies the personal stories behind the numbers, highlights available resources and alternative care options, exposes bad actors, and shines a light on the problem solvers entwined in one of the most pervasive health crises in the United States.

But first let’s start with an overview. Let’s start with Tomeka Isaac.

@jacesjourney

“Five years ago, our world shattered when Jace, our beloved son, passed away in utero. These painful memories still pierce our souls, reminding us of the importance of empathy, compassion, and awareness. Jace’s journey inspires us to advocate for better healthcare, informed consent, and patient-centered care, especially for Black women. Let’s change the narrative and ensure that every baby and mama not only survive but thrive. Like.Save.Share. #RememberingJace AdvocateForChange”@Count the Kicks

♬ Calm (Lofi) – Faneo sound

Jace’s Journey

In May of 2018, Isaac was 35 weeks into what seemed like a normal pregnancy. Her son Jace was due in a month, but he was measuring small, she says. The next week, Jace failed a prenatal heart test.

Then Isaac passed out at home and was rushed to the hospital. Soon, she delivered Jace stillborn.

Isaac, who along with her husband Brandon formed the non-profit Jace’s Journey the following year to help other mothers safely navigate their pregnancies, was diagnosed with a particularly dangerous form of preeclampsia. She had no idea she was at risk for the condition. There are several blood and urine tests that could have spotted the danger earlier, but her doctor never ordered the tests, Isaac said.

Isaac had seven surgeries over the next 45 days, and developed infections that kept her in the hospital.

She was unable to attend Jace’s funeral.

“We soon realized that the medical system we had trusted had failed us,” Isaac said.

The mission at Jace’s Journey is to help guide other parents through their pregnancies: to educate them on what constitutes proper care, and what warning signs to look out for.

The couple formed Jace’s Journey, Isaac said, to “pick up the pieces of the unimaginable.”

Isaac told her story in a Black Maternal Health Week round-table discussion in 2023, and she tells her story in videos on social media and in conversations with parents across the county. If doctors had listened to her four years ago, she said then, her son might still be alive.

“[Jace] died because I had not received quality routine, prenatal care,” Isaac said last year. “I almost died because for more than three hours the hospital failed to give me a CT scan which would have shown I was bleeding internally.”

Isaac’s story reflects too many others.

Several studies show that many Black women faced the same problems as Isaac: inconsistent care early in their pregnancies and doctors who don’t listen.

@jacesjourney

Repost…..What a Mother…..bmmhs2023 blackmaternalmentalhealthmatters blackmamasmatter changethenarrative itsokaynottobeokay blackmaternalmentalhealthweek2023

♬ Healing – Soft boy

The data

We know people loathe numbers, but these are stark.

As you see above, our stories, graphics and videos are going to be full of links and sources, because these problems are not guesses, theories or estimates. They are proven issues, backed by hundreds of years of data, studies and research.

“I have two Masters’ degrees and over a decade of professional experience,” Isaac said. “I had private insurance, never missed a prenatal appointment and had no preexisting conditions, but none of that protected me or my baby.”

What is being done about it?

North Carolina Democrats in both Congress and in the General Assembly have sponsored legislation that would take a multi-pronged approach to lowering Black maternal death rates.

US Rep. Alma Adams, who represents parts of Mecklenburg County, was one of the sponsors of the

2021 US Black Maternal Health Momnibus, a collection of bills in the House and Senate that would try to approach the problem from several angles.

The legislation would, among other things, increase investments in several areas that contribute to the high death rates, including related racial disparities in housing, transportation and nutrition policies.

It would also issue grants to community-based organizations like Jace’s Journey that are working on the local level, boost diversity among obstetricians, improve data collection, improve maternal care for veterans, and fund telehealth measures in rural areas.

It would do a lot.

But while some of the individual bills have passed either the House or Senate, the overall package has languished in Congress under Republican leadership, despite some 200 medical organizations endorsing most of the provisions.

State Democrats introduced a similar bundling of bills in the General Assembly last year, and it has had a similar result. Republicans, who have a supermajority in the legislature, have not opened the collection for a vote.

Republicans did, however, stick a few of the provisions from the bill into the 12-week abortion ban they passed last year.

‘Hear her’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the “Hear Her Campaign,” in 2020, an initiative to help spread awareness of life-threatening warning signs and to encourage healthcare providers to listen to their patients.

“The campaign seeks to encourage partners, friends, family, coworkers, and providers—anyone who supports pregnant and postpartum people—to really listen when she tells you something doesn’t feel right,” the CDC says about the program.

It also offers a guide for pregnant women who feel their doctor isn’t listening, encouraging them to ask what their symptoms mean and if there is any test that could determine if there’s a serious problem. (You can find the full guide here.)

“Each person knows their own body better than anyone and can often tell when something does not feel right,” the CDC says.

That, Takema Isaac says, is exactly right.

Isaac publishes several videos on her organization’s Instagram, urging women to advocate for themselves – firmly.

“It’s time to break the silence,” Isaac says in one video, “so that not one more baby has to die a preventable death.”

Here are some resources:

  • Jace’s Journey: Helps educate pregnant women about the healthcare they need and connects them to community groups and other resources.
  • Care Ring: An NC-focused nonprofit has helped nearly 8,000 uninsured and underinsured people in the Charlotte area find high-quality health care. Pregnancy is one of its focuses.
  • The Preeclampsia Foundation
  • The CDC’s Hear Her Campaign
  • Mine-R-T Doula Company: A Charlotte based, Black-owned Doula company that offers prenatal, birthing and postpartum services.
  • March of Dimes: This national organization offers several resources for finding prenatal and postpartum support in your area, including information on infants born premature.
  • Planned Parenthood South Atlantic: Offers several resources including pregnancy testing services.

 

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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