Black pregnant women say white doctors don’t listen to them. Here’s one NC woman’s story.

Black maternal health

Jessica Deas and her husband, Jerome Deas, with their children, Asana, Hiro, and Huey. (Photo courtesy of the Deas family.)

By Michael McElroy

May 23, 2024

Jessica Deas has three children, but doctors in her first two pregnancies dismissed her serious symptoms, ignored her pain and shrugged away her concerns, she says. Her experience is not unique.

[Note: This is part of Cardinal & Pine’s series on Black maternal health. For more, click here.]

Black women in the United States are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. This is not a new phenomenon.

The Black Maternal Health crisis is older than the U.S. Constitution.

“Black women and Black babies deserve better,” NC Senator Natalie Murdock, a Democrat, said this month.

But as Murdock pointed out, “Even when Black women don’t die from pregnancy, their pregnancies are higher risk due to stress, discrimination, [and] implicit bias.”

She added: “And Black women’s concerns and pain are far more likely to be dismissed, ignored, and shrugged away.”

Murdock was describing the experiences of countless women of color. She was also describing Jessica Deas.

Deas lives in Durham with her husband, Jerome, and three children, Hiro, 4; Huey, 2; and Asana, 10 months.

Her sons were born in hospitals. Asana was born at home with a midwife.

Two of those experiences were terrible, she said.

White doctors in different states and hospitals dismissed her symptoms, ignored her pain, and shrugged away her concerns, she told Cardinal & Pine.

‘I didn’t feel seen’

Deas, 35, was a math teacher in Georgia before moving to New York City in her mid-20s to pursue her masters in education policy. She loved the kids, but teaching is a hard job.

She wanted something more.

So, like many people do, she went to New York City, looking for a new path. Like many people also do, she fell in love there too.

“I went to NYU. And then that’s when I met my husband, Jerome. He was in the same program,” she said.

“We got pregnant after we graduated.”

The couple knew they wanted several children, she said, but “I had no idea about pregnancy or what it looks like to have a baby or any of those things.”

She’d had high blood pressure most of her life and was worried about how that would affect her pregnancy.

She and Jerome visited several doctors, and left vowing never to return. No one was rude, they said, but they didn’t really respond to her concerns. “It shouldn’t be an issue,” doctors told her.

They didn’t talk to her about preeclampsia, a dangerous condition for pregnant women that’s characterized by high-blood pressure. They never told her that Black women are 60% more likely than white women to develop it.

When she asked one doctor if it was safe for her to travel, he told her, “I don’t care what you do,” Deas said.

“I didn’t feel seen,” she said.

They finally found a doctor, she said, who listened to her, answered all her questions and led her attentively through the pregnancy.

Then Deas went into labor and went to the hospital.

Here is Deas in her own words about her experience in New York, her second pregnancy after the family moved to North Carolina in 2019, and her decision to have a home birth with her third child, Asana, last year.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said you wanted to have a home birth with your second child, but weren’t able to find a way to do so. Did your experience in New York make you distrust hospitals?

Yeah, I also wanted more time. The hospital was just such a sterile environment for such a beautiful thing. Birth is so beautiful and the hospital just made it feel very sterile and medical. And I wanted something different.

After I had Hiro [in NY], my placenta didn’t immediately release, it just stayed attached, and has done so in each of my pregnancies. I asked the nurse then to just give it a minute, but she was busy and so she didn’t have time to wait and so she just said, ‘I’m going to gently massage and get it out.’

Black maternal health

Jessica Deas at Hiro’s baby shower. She said it took a long time to find a doctor she felt comfortable with during her first pregnancy. (Courtesy of Jessica Deas.)

But instead she stuck her hand in and ripped it out and it was so painful. It was so painful. And so I was traumatized after that. I cried in the car and I felt so silly, but it was just like I didn’t want anything, anyone messing with it because that was a lasting effect of that. And so yeah, after all of that, I just wanted something different, but I couldn’t find it in North Carolina.

What was your experience with Huey’s birth?

Yes. I knew that I wanted to be at the hospital for the least amount of time possible. So I spent from 4 that morning till 3 in the afternoon laboring by myself at home and showering, eating and packing. I knew when it was time to go to the hospital, I felt like, OK, it’s time. I’m ready. The baby’s about to come.

My husband was at work, so he met me at the hospital. We check in and tell them I’m in labor and we go to the waiting room, which is very small. The chairs are very hard, which doesn’t make sense to me that you would have that in a waiting room where women are going to have babies. Like in New York, there were many women who were also coming in to give birth.

And let me say this, that as a woman, I feel you should be able to labor however you want to labor. If that means screaming, if that means shouting, if that means crawling on the floor, whatever you have to do in your labor space, you do that. For me, I am almost silent. When I’m laboring, I breathe. I’m very quiet. I’m very to myself because it just helps me center myself. I know I didn’t want medical intervention, so I wanted to practice my breathing.

The other women that were coming in, were not laboring [quietly].

I was in active labor, but because I didn’t look like I was, everyone who came after me got pulled back before me. And so I had to sit in the waiting room for what would become an hour.

My husband would go back and he would go back and say, ‘OK, when is someone coming? And the receptionist would say, ‘Well, everyone else here is in active labor, but no one had checked me to know if I was or I wasn’t.’ And so I’m waiting there, I’m bleeding. I mean, I’m in excruciating pain.

Finally the woman that comes and takes the paperwork walks by sees my face and she’s like, oh my gosh, no one even came to tell me that you were here.

‘You’re so quiet,’ she said. ‘You’re so quiet.’

She made me sign all my paperwork while I’m still very much in pain.

She said she’d go get a nurse and the nurse takes a minute to come back. She’s like, ‘OK, well let’s go to triage.’ And I was like, I’m in active labor, I don’t think I can walk.

She said, ‘Yes, you can walk.’ And so now mind you, every other woman that I had seen come and go was in a wheelchair. They take me to the triage room and she called the doctor, but all the doctors were busy.

So she says, ‘OK, well I’ll check you myself.’ And she checks me and I’m 8 centimeters. And she panics because now she’s like, ‘Oh.’

She gets on the phone and then other nurses come in and then it’s full on panic. And then they ask me again after she knows that I’m 8 centimeters, she asks me again, ‘Can you walk?’ And this time I just said, ‘absolutely not. No.’

And they say, they laugh and they say, ‘OK.’ And then they push my bed into the elevator. My water breaks in between this. By the time I get to the actual [delivery] room, there’s like 20 people in there and they’re frantic. My husband went to the doctor and asked if something was wrong, because they were so frantic that he thought something was wrong. And she said, ‘No, we just weren’t prepared for her.’

By the time I get on the table, she says, ‘OK, you have to push now and I did.’

And Huey came and he was fine.

There’s still so many people in the room. And then they keep saying, all the nurses keep saying, ‘oh, you’re so lucky.’ All the other women are still in labor. All the other women are still in labor. And they’re saying it thinking that I should feel happy about it. But essentially, you all ignored me and let everyone go into these rooms before me when I was actually the only one that was in active labor.

With my first baby, I was induced. So I didn’t have to experience that. But here I am experiencing it. And it was just afterwards, they have to clean you up and they have to press on your stomach and check you and make sure there’s no scars. And I had told them that I had trauma, a voice that I had trauma from my first birth. And to please be careful, just because I understand physically you have to do it, but mentally it’s very tough for me. And the nurse just says, ‘You’re not going to like it, but I’m going to do it.’

And she did it and she was not gentle, and she just was not careful. And so when we finally got to our room, the care room, immediately when the nurse shut the door, and it was just me and my husband, I just bawled. And he came over and hugged me. He knew exactly what was wrong. He felt the tension too. And I just cried, cried, cried. I mean, I cried all night because I just felt invisible. It was like nobody saw me when I came to the hospital. And then after the baby came, people saw the baby, but again, no one saw me. It just felt terrible.

Were you determined to have a home birth with Asana?

I thought that I had processed my birth trauma with Huey, but as soon as I started to look for doctors [with my third child], it started to come back up and I became so anxious, just very on the brink of tears all the time, scared. We eventually found a doctor and I went to two or three appointments there. Overall it was fine.

I’m going to say that it was fine, but still, I told my husband, this time we’re getting a doula because I don’t want what happened last time. I want you to be able to focus on me and not having to advocate and do all this other stuff.

I’m still thinking that home birth is illegal in North Carolina, but then finally I talked to someone, I can’t remember, a Black doula, and I told her that I really would just prefer to have a baby at home. And she was like, ‘Well, I can give you the names of some midwives.’

And I was like, you, I can have a birth. She’s like, ‘yeah, it is limited, but I can give you some names.’ That’s how I found Adiah.

What was your experience with her?

I just loved her from the start. Our first Zoom call was over an hour. Adiah [with Special Beginnings Midwifery] asked about me and my family, my kids, she asked about all my other births. When I told her the story about Huey, she was also appalled. I wanted to feel safer. I felt like the hospital was an unsafe place, and her whole thing was like, ‘I’m never going to do anything unsafe.’

One thing she always says, ‘it is the product, not the process.’ You want to home birth, and I understand that, but we’re never going to do anything that’s going to be unsafe for you or your baby because you have to come out of this alive and so does your baby. And so that was just, no doctor had ever said that before.

From the beginning, the prenatal care was just amazing. She came to our house for the visits. They were over an hour long, every one of them.

I had never felt more seen in my pregnancy than when I was having care from Adiah.

Did that standard of care translate to Asana’s birth as well?

Similar to Huey, I labored on my own for a few hours and then when I knew I was ready, Jerome called Adiah. She came and she set everything up. In the hospital, they tell you when to push. They tell you when you’re ready, and Adiah was very much like,‘it’s your body. You’re going to know when to push.’

Or she kept saying, ‘I’m going to believe you when you tell me that it is time.’

And then when the baby was ready to come, she told Jerome to come stand here, and she just stood on the side watching very intently. And then I pushed and Asana came, and my husband caught her and put her on my chest. And it was just beautiful.

You are now an expert in the Black maternal crisis and why it’s so important to solve it. So what have you learned about the crisis and why it’s so prevalent?

Well, one thing I think I’m very happy that there’s this resurgence of attention on Black maternal health and people learning more and talking about it more. But one thing I want to be clear about that, while it’s great that we are educating Black women, the onus has to be on the providers.

It is their responsibility to know all the trends and to take the time to ask questions, to do the research, to see color, to understand that Black women having children bear differently than some other demographics. And they have to be honest with that. And it is their responsibility to explain that.

When I tell Huey’s story, one of the first things that everyone says is that, yeah, that’s why you have to advocate for yourself and your husband should do this. And yes, you do have to advocate for yourself, but I shouldn’t have to advocate for myself while having a baby. I have other things that I’m concerned about. And so I just want providers to continue to learn. I want them to hold each other accountable.

One last story that I’ll tell is that unfortunately after Asana’s beautiful birth, a few days later, I lost my vision. I was very dizzy. And Adiah was like, you need to go to the hospital.

I had had this beautiful birth, I did not want to go to the hospital. And she was like, you need to go to the hospital because you can get preeclampsia after you give birth. It’s a thing. And so I went, and when I got there, the first provider, the doctor never even came in the room.

He kept sending the PA or the nurse, saying ‘Well it’s probably just that you lost fluid very quickly.’ But the doctor never came in and talked to me. And then they were about to release me.

And my husband was like, ‘But you’re not going to run any tests, you’re not going to do a CT scan? She’s lost her vision.’

And they were like, she’s probably fine. And then there was a shift change. So right when the doctor was going to discharge me, she said, we have to get it signed off by the new doctor now and the new doctor was a woman of color who then immediately came in the room and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t go home.’

She was like, these are classic signs of postpartum preeclampsia in Black women. This is a time when many women have passed away. They have died in this time because all the symptoms you’re experiencing go with that. Your blood pressure looks OK right now, but I’m more concerned with your symptoms.

I was just taken aback.

On one hand I had a doctor who didn’t even come in a room and said that I just lost too much fluids, and then here you are saying that it is dire and I need to stay for 24 hours. The level of care that you receive should not depend on what time you go to the hospital. If I had come an hour earlier, I would’ve been sent home. It turns out I was ultimately OK, but for so many women, that’s not the case.

Our stories are not unique, we just have to tell them more. Until someone listens.

How is Asana doing?

She’s great. She’s just starting to walk, so a lot of tumbling over, but she’s taken her first few steps.

And how do Hiro and Huey like being big brothers?

They’re really good. Hiro is a great big brother. Huey is a little rough. He wants to hop on her and wrestle with her, but they’re both really obsessed with her. We just need to work on gentle hands.

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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