I sat down to write this with a slow crawling ache working its way, vertebrae by vertebrae, from my lower back to the base of my neck. Push through. A two-word story many Black women are all too familiar with, so when it gets excruciating we begin to bargain. Push through… and think about how empowering you’ll be when you can say you did this in spite of what you’re going through.
It was a Friday, almost exactly 20 years since the day my mother passed away in her bedroom while I stood nearby watching with labored breath as she drew her last ones. My vision blurred from burning hot tears, now, as I listened to my doctor explain to me flatly over the phone:
“You are having a miscarriage.” She said it with no detectable tone — no compassion, nor empathy — in her voice. I choked a few times — first from the jab to my gut and then from the shock of hearing my own steady voice. “Ok, ok … I understand … thank you.”
Some bizarre internal programming (a glitch?!) had forced polite, yet convincing, words out of the mouth of a body that was imploding internally. If I’m being honest, though, I recognized that voice. It was groomed from my intrinsic need to demonstrate that I will always persevere and from my intrinsic need to always appear to be respectable in the presence of white people — even when it’s my own doctor.
I’d been programmed by the popular tropes Black women often repeat in the face of racism, discrimination, or any of the range of human suffering we experience in the world. “Go high.” “Still rise.” “Push through.”
I tried to do this, even as I watched motherhood escape me…again. The trope of strong black women should be put in its place next to other dangerous cultural assumptions masquerading as “well-meaning” projections — next to “smart Asians” and “wealthy Jews.” While it is assumed that these narratives are complementary, they are, in fact, dangerous and dismissive. The centuries past, the strong Black woman narrative allowed for Black women’s bodies to be routinely misused, especially as it pertained to gynecology and obstetrics. In fact, in the infamous experiments conducted by J. Marion Sims, the alleged “father of modern gynecology,” he celebrated his Black female slave subjects while subjecting them to extreme agony, saying that their endurance would ultimately help all women.
It is a story that we have remixed and retold, to ourselves, to each other, and to our detriment. And the medical field has only reinforced these traumatic messages and experiences.
That is why my story — the pain, the endurance, the lack of compassion from white medical professionals even when they are supposed to be in service to us in our darkest moments — is not atypical. Like Beyoncé and Serena, the expectation has become that we will lift ourselves out of the darkness and trauma, especially as it relates to motherhood and childbirth and child loss, to later demonstrate otherworldly strength and consumable inspiration for the masses in the form of creative expression (articles like this one included).
At best, Black mothers who do perish (at the hands of a medical system and culture that swears we will always make it no matter what degree of negligence we experience) will receive a hashtag and an article. The most public example of this was when Judge Hatchett’s daughter-in-law died as a result of medical negligence while giving birth to her second child. Outrage from the medical community was limited in her case, as most of us only felt its impact in the form of a few reported articles from rightfully outraged Black women.
And while our healing will always be our own responsibility, at what point does the medical industry and society as a whole have to acknowledge that it is, unequivocally, at fault for improper treatment, care, and compassion towards Black people — particularly Black mothers? The Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine is attempting to take some responsibility by implementing a preventative measure.
“Research suggests that health outcomes for people of color may improve when they are treated by doctors of similar racial backgrounds,” a representative from the school explained to HipLatina, highlighting studies from Stanford and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology which says Black patients would experience improved health with more racially diverse physicians and Black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy, labor, and childbirth than white women.
So, rather than subject Black patients to the continued care of non-Black medical professionals, Kaiser Permanente’s School of Medicine has now launched an initiative to matriculate more diverse students into its programming, in hopes of ultimately improving racial diversity in the medical field, which will ultimately benefit Black patients.
“One way our school hopes to help create a diverse physician workforce is our approach to admissions – we take a ‘holistic admissions’ approach,” said Dr. Lindia Willies-Jacobo, Associate Dean for Admissions. The Dean admits that this approach is being more widely used across medical schools nationwide, which she calls “encouraging.”
“Patients’ experience can suffer greatly if a physician lacks cultural humility or cross-cultural communication skills,” she adds. “We believe our graduates, with their unique attributes coupled with our intentional curriculum, will become leaders of effective clinical communication.” The school believes that this approach — starting with medical schools — can certainly help improve the situation for Black patients, especially Black women who are disproportionately affected by health conditions.
“Sadly, based on the data of medical school applicant pools, there is a small percentage of people of color applicants as compared to the general population breakdown. We want to help shift this trend and influence the reduction of these disparities,” Dr. Willies-Jacobo says.
For all the ways we may inspire society with stories of our struggle, our magic can not fulfill its greatness until the medical community takes proper responsibility and steps up to deal with our pain in more humane, attentive ways.
It is my hope that in this year, we will continue to see more non-white doctors in the field who are reversing the alarming trend of Black maternal death and trauma.