Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis
The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.
By LINDA VILLAROSA
Apr 11 2018
When Simone Landrum felt tired and both nauseated and ravenous at the same time in the spring of 2016, she recognized the signs of pregnancy. Her beloved grandmother died earlier that year, and Landrum felt a sense of divine order when her doctor confirmed on Muma’s birthday that she was carrying a girl. She decided she would name her daughter Harmony. “I pictured myself teaching my daughter to sing,” says Landrum, now 23, who lives in New Orleans. “It was something I thought we could do together.”
But Landrum, who was the mother of two young sons, noticed something different about this pregnancy as it progressed. The trouble began with constant headaches and sensitivity to light; Landrum described the pain as “shocking.” It would have been reasonable to guess that the crippling headaches had something to do with stress: Her relationship with her boyfriend, the baby’s father, had become increasingly contentious and eventually physically violent. Three months into her pregnancy, he became angry at her for wanting to hang out with friends and threw her to the ground outside their apartment. She scrambled to her feet, ran inside and called the police. He continued to pursue her, so she grabbed a knife. “Back up — I have a baby,” she screamed. After the police arrived, he was arrested and charged with multiple offenses, including battery. He was released on bond pending a trial that would not be held until the next year. Though she had broken up with him several times, Landrum took him back, out of love and also out of fear that she couldn’t support herself, her sons and the child she was carrying on the paycheck from her waitress gig at a restaurant in the French Quarter.
As her January due date grew closer, Landrum noticed that her hands, her feet and even her face were swollen, and she had to quit her job because she felt so ill. But her doctor, whom several friends had recommended and who accepted Medicaid, brushed aside her complaints. He recommended Tylenol for the headaches. “I am not a person who likes to take medicine, but I was always popping Tylenol,” Landrum says. “When I told him my head still hurt, he said to take more.”
At a prenatal appointment a few days before her baby shower in November, Landrum reported that the headache had intensified and that she felt achy and tired. A handwritten note from the appointment, sandwiched into a printed file of Landrum’s electronic medical records that she later obtained, shows an elevated blood-pressure reading of 143/86. A top number of 140 or more or a bottom number higher than 90, especially combined with headaches, swelling and fatigue, points to the possibility of pre-eclampsia: dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy.
High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are two of the leading causes of maternal death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and hypertensive disorders in pregnancy, including pre-eclampsia, have been on the rise over the past two decades, increasing 72 percent from 1993 to 2014. A Department of Health and Human Services report last year found that pre-eclampsia and eclampsia (seizures that develop after pre-eclampsia) are 60 percent more common in African-American women and also more severe. Landrum’s medical records note that she received printed educational material about pre-eclampsia during a prenatal visit. But Landrum would comprehend the details about the disorder only months later, doing online research on her own.
When Landrum complained about how she was feeling more forcefully at the appointment, she recalls, her doctor told her to lie down — and calm down. She says that he also warned her that he was planning to go out of town and told her that he could deliver the baby by C-section that day if she wished, six weeks before her early-January due date. Landrum says it seemed like an ultimatum, centered on his schedule and convenience. So she took a deep breath and lay on her back for 40 minutes until her blood pressure dropped within normal range. Aside from the handwritten note, Landrum’s medical records don’t mention the hypertensive episode, the headaches or the swelling, and she says that was the last time the doctor or anyone from his office spoke to her. “It was like he threw me away,” Landrum says angrily.
Four days later, Landrum could no longer deny that something was very wrong. She was suffering from severe back pain and felt bone-tired, unable to get out of bed. That evening, she packed a bag and asked her boyfriend to take her sons to her stepfather’s house and then drive her to the hospital. In the car on the way to drop off the boys, she felt wetness between her legs and assumed her water had broken. But when she looked at the seat, she saw blood. At her stepfather’s house, she called 911. Before she got into the ambulance, Landrum pulled her sons close. “Mommy loves you,” she told them, willing them to stay calm. “I have to go away, but when I come back I will have your sister.”
By the time she was lying on a gurney in the emergency room of Touro Infirmary, a hospital in the Uptown section of New Orleans, the splash of blood had turned into a steady stream. “I could feel it draining out of me, like if you get a jug of milk and pour it onto the floor,” she recalls. Elevated blood pressure — Landrum’s medical records show a reading of 160/100 that day — had caused an abruption: the separation of the placenta from her uterine wall.
With doctors and nurses hovering over her, everything became both hazy and chaotic. When a nurse moved a monitor across her belly, Landrum couldn’t hear a heartbeat. “I kept saying: ‘Is she O.K.? Is she all right?’ ” Landrum recalls. “Nobody said a word. I have never heard a room so silent in my life.” She remembers that the emergency-room doctor dropped his head. Then he looked into her eyes. “He told me my baby was dead inside of me. I was like: What just happened? Is this a dream? And then I turned my head to the side and threw up.”
Sedated but conscious, Landrum felt her mind growing foggy. “I was just so tired,” she says. “I felt like giving up.” Then she pictured the faces of her two young sons. “I thought, Who’s going to take care of them if I’m gone?” That’s the last thing she recalls clearly. When she became more alert sometime later, a nurse told her that she had almost bled to death and had required a half dozen units of transfused blood and platelets to survive. “The nurse told me: ‘You know, you been sick. You are very lucky to be alive,’ ” Landrum remembers. “She said it more than once.”