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Serena Williams’ traumatic birth experience isn’t rare for black women—and that needs to change

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She is arguably one of the best tennis players of all time. She is widely popular, even among non-sports fans and is married to the multi-millionaire co-founder of Reddit. Yet, after the birth of her first child, Serena Williams tells Vogue she had to convince health care professionals to take her seriously when she noticed signs of a pulmonary embolism.


As recounted in Vogue:

“The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”

That this could happen to Williams paints a bleak picture of maternity care in the United States, where more women die of pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country. The statistics are even worse for black women, who die at three to four times the rate of white women from childbirth, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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What’s even more heartbreaking is that two leading causes of maternal death—preeclampsia and hemorrhage—are preventable. So what is going on?

The challenge facing African-American mothers is a complex one, with a deadly interplay of genetic and sociocultural factors at work. Black women are more susceptible to chronic illnesses such as anemia, obesity, hypertension and diabetes, which can complicate an otherwise normal pregnancy.

For the estimated 45% of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, there is often a delay in managing pre-existing conditions such as these—and that’s if they have access to prenatal care at all, given that black women are less likely to be insured than white women.

Once African-American women make it into care facilities, their concerns are often dismissed by professionals, just as Williams experienced.

“We know there are instances where [African-American mothers] are not given the proper level of attention and care because of assumptions that doctors and hospitals are making about them,” Shawn Theirry, a Texas House of Representatives member who recently introduced legislation that would investigate this discrepancy, tells the Los Angeles Times.

When a “violent reaction” to an epidural threatened her own life during childbirth, Thierry says it was only because of her “excellent insurance” that she got the care she needed.

But, for many more, that is not the case—as a recent investigation from ProPublica and NPR reveals. As the report recounts:

“In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB-GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.”

Another threat of implicit bias is that physicians often fail to appreciate the complexities within the label of “black” that is assigned to persons of color—which can blind them to diagnoses they don’t believe are common for black people.

That was the case for Shalon Irving, a lieutenant commander of the US Public Health Corps and an epidemiologist at the CDC, who died three weeks after her daughter’s birth from a blood clot disorder most common among those of European descent.

As a dark-skinned woman, she had never been tested for the illness—even though multiple members of her family had died from symptoms that clearly implicated it. The illness, apparently, didn’t know that they were black. Nor did it realize that Irving was educated, middle class and insured.

There’s a final major factor at play here, and it’s the United States’ attitude towards pregnancy itself.

This country often focuses on fetal and infant care to the detriment of the mother. Pregnancy is treated as pathology, with C-sections, epidurals, inductions and other interventions at an all-time high.

Compare that to the United Kingdom, where every maternal death is painstakingly evaluated to hold caretakers culpable and promote the sharing of data that could prevent future tragedies. In the United States, this maternal mortality review process is left to the discretion of states—of which 24 have procedures in place, according to a 2017 report in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Without these processes, there is no way to learn from mistakes. And the price we pay for that is women’s lives.

More must be done by our government and caregivers to empower the medical community to listen and look carefully at its patients as people—not statistics, presumptions or stereotypes.

Williams helped drive that conversation when she was so open about her experience, which has already led to an outpouring from women with similar stories. In a Facebook post this week, Williams said she is humbled, grateful and optimistic because of these responses.

“I want to thank all of you who have opened up through online comments and other platforms to tell your story,” she says. “I encourage you to continue to tell those stories. This helps. We can help others. Our voices are our power.”

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As a mid-Spring holiday, we never knew exactly what to expect from the weather on Easter when I was growing up in Michigan: Would we get to wear our new Sunday dresses without coats? Or would we be hunting for eggs while wearing snowsuits?

Although what the temperature had in store was really anyone's guess, there were a few special traditions my sister and I could always depend on—and it won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that my favorite memories revolved around food. After all, experts say memories are strongest when they tie senses together, which certainly seems to be true when it comes to holiday meals that involve the sounds of laughter and the taste of amazing food.

Now that I'm a parent, I'm experiencing Easter anew as my children discover the small delights of chocolate, pre-church brunch and a multi-generational dinner. While I still look forward to the treats and feasting, I'm realizing now that the sweetest thing of all is how these traditions bring our family together around one table.

For us, the build-up to Easter eats is an extended event. Last year's prep work began weeks in advance when my 3-year-old and I sat down to plan the brunch menu, which involved the interesting suggestion of "green eggs and ham." When the big morning rolled around, his eyes grew to the size of Easter eggs out of pure joy when the dish was placed on the table.

This year, rather than letting the day come and go in a flash, we are creating traditions that span weeks and allow even the littlest members of the family to feel involved.

Still, as much as I love enlisting my children's help, I also relish the opportunity to create some magic of my own with their Easter baskets—even if the Easter Bunny gets the credit. This year, I'm excited to really personalize the baskets by getting an "adoptable" plush unicorn for my daughter and the Kinder Chocolate Mini Eggs that my son hasn't stopped talking about since seeing at the store. (You can bet this mama is stocking up on some for herself, too.)

At the same time, Easter as a parent has opened my eyes to how much effort can be required...

There is the selection of the right Easter outfits for picture-perfect moments.

There is the styling of custom Easter baskets.

There is the filling of plastic eggs and strategic placement of them throughout the yard.

But when the cameras are put away and we all join together around the table for the family dinner at the end of the day, I can finally take a deep breath and really enjoy—especially with the knowledge that doing the dishes is my husband's job.

This article was sponsored by Kinder. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


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Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West have four young children and after self-isolating with her kids during the coronavirus pandemic Kardashian says that's probably as many as they'll ever have.

Speaking on The View this week, Kardashian explained: "Being at home with four kids...if I ever thought for a minute that I wanted another one—that is out the door. It's really tough. Really tough."

She continued: "My newfound respect for teachers—it's like, they deserve so much. It's been tough juggling it all and you really have to put yourself on the back burner and just focus on the kids."

Kim Kardashian West Shares Social Distancing Experience | The View www.youtube.com

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"I've been doing laundry and cooking," Kardashian West explained, which suggests that her household staff is not working during the family's self-isolation.

"Today was the first day that I actually brushed my hair and put on some makeup," she explained, adding that her sister Kylie Jenner came over to do her makeup for the TV appearance, and aside from their mom Kris Jenner coming over for a 6-foot-apart chat, that's the only extended family company she's had in a while.

Her kids, 6-year-old North, 4-year-old Saint, 2-year-old Chicago and baby Psalm have not been able to see their cousins, which is hard because they're all so close. Kardashian West told The View's co-hosts that while she actually enjoys the break from her family's usually jam-packed travel schedule, she's running out of activities around the house, and that her family has watched "every single movie that you can imagine" already.

There's nothing wrong with a little extra screen time during this challenging time Kim, but if you need more activities we've got plenty of ideas!

News

One bright spot amid all the dark news about the COVID-19 pandemic is the number of artists, writers, musicians, creators—and regular everyday people—who have taken to the Internet to offer comfort in creativity. Every day, it seems, there's a new announcement of an online drawing class, music release or story time to help people through.

This Friday, two well-known figures launch streaming story times online: Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton, and universally beloved music genius (and celestial force for good) Dolly Parton.

Levar Burton, who taught a whole generation of kids to love reading with his calm, positive presence on the PBS show Reading Rainbow, first announced his livestream story time last week via Twitter. The actor and longtime childhood literacy advocate sent out a public request for material he had permission to read. The children's book division of HarperCollins publishers responded with a blanket "yes," as did bestselling author Neil Gaiman.

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Burton launches his #LeVarBurtonReads story time series this Friday, April 3 on Twitter with a reading aimed at adults. Monday mornings at 9 am PT he'll stream a story reading for children, and Wednesday afternoons at 3 pm PT he'll read YA for tweens and middle-grade readers.

Meanwhile, if you can't wait to relive your Reading Rainbow years, warm up with this video clip of LeVar Burton reading Goodnight Moon to scientist and all-around good guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which is just as awesome as it sounds.

In other fantastic news, Dolly Parton also launches a bedtime story series online this Friday night, as she announced this week on the Imagination Library YouTube channel:

The story time series, called "Good Night with Dolly," will release a new bedtime story video every Friday night at 7 pm ET on its YouTube channel.

Dolly Parton is the founder of the childhood literacy organization the Imagination Library, which sends free books to children every month. You can listen to Parton read her own children's book Coat of Many Colors at a Library of Congress celebration in honor of the Imagination Library—and yes, it's ridiculously sweet (and she can't help but break into song a few times).

Dolly Parton and LeVar Burton join a growing number of celebrities offering online story times to help parents and kids through the pandemic. Josh Gad (the voice of Frozen's Olaf) reads on Twitter every night, Cressida Cowell of How to Train Your Dragon series fame reads from her books on YouTube, and literally every movie star you've ever not-so-secretly thirsted for—from Chris Evans to Eddie Redmayne to Josh Brolin—is reading children's picture books over at @SaveWithStories on Instagram, which benefits No Kid Hungry and Save the Children.

When the pandemic news gets to feel like too much, it's comforting to know that you and your children can curl up with a good book, a familiar face and a friendly voice.

News

Nursing departments are known to have baby booms, and right now four emergency room nurses at UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh, NC are all pregnant at the same time.

Of course, it is very hard to be a pregnant person right now as the nation and the world battle coronavirus, and as nurses, these four brave mamas are on the front lines every day.

That's why they took this now-viral photo, showing off their bumps while displaying an important message:

"Our babies came to work for you! Stay home for them!" read the signs they're holding.

Courtney Ames Hart, one of the nurses, posted the photo to her Facebook page, adding this caption: "Not only do we come to work during his pandemic, but so do our unborn babies! Please take ALL of us into account before you decide to leave your house!"

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"I'd just like people to know that it's not just us that are pregnant that are risking our health, but all of us in healthcare, from the EVS workers and our intakes to the techs, nurses, respiratory therapists and doctors," Hart tells Motherly.

She continues: "We are really grateful for all the support we are receiving from the public and I can only hope this sheds a brighter light on the field of nursing and the influence we have in the healthcare industry. This is my third pregnancy as an ER nurse, but this is definitely different from the other pregnancies in that I'm more cautious than ever to protect myself and my little as well as my family I come home to after every shift."

According to the CDC, pregnant people are considered an at-risk population for COVID-19, but many pregnant healthcare providers are still working.

The CDC states: "We do not have information from published scientific reports about susceptibility of pregnant women to COVID-19. Pregnant women experience immunologic and physiologic changes which might make them more susceptible to viral respiratory infections, including COVID-19."

"It is definitely a concerning time, even for us healthcare workers, because of all the unknowns that come along with COVID-19," Hart told WRAL News. "But we are trying to take it day-by-day and we are trying to stay as prepared as we can."

She says the four nurses in the photo are supporting each other every day, and they are hardly alone in this.

As ProPublica reports, "the American health care workforce is overwhelmingly female—about 90% of nurses and home health aides are women—and at any given time, an unknown number of them, likely in the thousands, are pregnant."

And as CNBC points out, "across the world, the official guidance from public health officials varies widely about whether pregnant health workers should be in the presence of patients as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads."

Right now, it's up to each hospital to determine how it will protect pregnant workers. According to Hart, managers at UNC REX are doing their best to keep her and the other three pregnant nurses as safe as possible.

The public can do their part, too, by staying home to prevent the spread of the disease. Flattening the curve isn't just good for the health of pregnant members of the public, but for the pregnant people who are working to keep the rest of us safe every day.


News

As the United States grapples with the coronavirus, it's becoming more apparent that hospitals need to have ventilators to save lives. The Society of Critical Care Medicine claims that 960,000 coronavirus patients in the United States may need to be put on a ventilator at some point during the outbreak, but sadly our country has only about 200,000.

But in the midst of chaos, a team of engineers in Southern Maryland, believe they can help hospitals save thousands of lives by repurposing breast pumps. Gerstner, along with her husband, Grant Gerstner and Alex Scott and Rachel LaBatt discovered that reversing the suction in the pumps turns them into an "intermittent positive pressure ventilation" device, which is essentially a ventilator.

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"A breast pump does pulsing intervals. It is a sanitize-able biomedical device that's approved by the Food and Drug Administration. You know they're reliable, they've been used by moms everywhere for decades. What if I could reverse it," Brandi Gerstner explained to The Bay Net. "What if I could make it blow rather than suck? And so I grabbed my old one from the basement, grabbed a screwdriver and an X-Acto knife. Sure enough, you can turn it around very, very easily."

According to the New York Times, ventilators can cost up to $50,000, but the team's device will be around $500. The next step for the team is to get a review from a pulmonologist so that they can have access to a biomedical simulation laboratory, and ultimately get approval from the FDA.

"The beauty of looking at breast pumps as a potential solution is, it's a thing that is available for free in a lot of mom's basements and closets." Gerstner says.

It's a journey, but they aren't giving up. "I'm very hopeful that we can find the right collaborators in the biomedical community to get this design validated and replicated as quickly as possible," says Gerstner. "Our 'good' would look like rapidly getting into a high-quality biomedical simulation lab, and getting into a hospital."

To find out how you can contribute to the cause, donate an old breast pump (any model) or support the engineers, contact them at breastpumpvent@gmail.com.

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