West MI moms question bias in childbirth care as black maternal mortality rates continue to climb

Posted at 8:32 PM, May 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-13 20:33:24-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Having a baby is supposed to be a joyful time, but for black mothers across America, childbirth can quickly become a life and death situation.

Black moms are three times more likely to die during childbirth as their white counterparts. While that isn’t a new statistic, medical professionals are looking at a newer, tougher answer to a difficult problem.

In West Michigan, Spectrum Health is working to be part of that solution. A year ago, the hospital implemented a system to monitor blood loss during child birth.

"Women are going to bleed during delivery and postpartum, that's going to happen," said Dr. David Foster Colombo, Spectrum director of maternal fetal medicine. “But if you address it, give blood as needed and medication as needed, you can prevent the death from occurring.”

Postpartum hemorrhages, or excessive bleeding, is the leading cause of maternal death.

Rebecca Diffin had a postpartum hemorrhage after delivering her second child. She said she didn’t know what was happening in the moment, but realized it was serious when she saw the reactions of the people in the room.

"I could've been one of those statistics,” she said. “Why isn't this being talked about? Why don't more people know about this, and why don't we care?"

Diffin and her baby made it out alive, but it wasn’t until her third pregnancy that she started to realize a pattern. "There was never any communication from doctors to say, ‘So, we've seen your history that you've had this experience; we want to watch out for that and be concerned this is your third pregnancy,’” Diffin said. “There was nothing. No kind of conversation like that.”

She says doctors didn’t listen to her concerns, which is a factor that could be contributing to black women being three times as likely to die giving birth.

When Jordan Ebanaya delivered her first child, she dealt with postpartum preeclampsia, and she says her doctors didn’t listen to her.

"My blood pressure was 200 over 100 and something and was told repeatedly by a doctor in the ER that my blood pressure wasn't the problem, that I had a bad headache and that was making my blood pressure rise," she said. "We don't often get the respect that we need from our doctors … when we say there's something wrong.”

Colombo says it’s a problem they have noticed and are hoping to change.

"When people really look at the issue, what they found is there may be some social bias toward one race over another," he said.

However, he said biases aren’t likely to be the only reason black women are dying at elevated rates, and investigation needs to continue into the cause.

Meanwhile, he encourages women to be their own best advocates.

Ebanaya is working with Western Michigan University to address the issue, you can find out more information about her research here. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has had a task force for the last few years and continues to work towards a solution. They're holding a meeting Wednesday, you can find more information here.