Cheryl Turner’s cousin didn’t have to die.
She was pregnant with her third child and kept telling her doctor something was wrong. She was in pain. But her cousin’s doctor, Turner said, told her that she was just overweight with high blood pressure. He dismissed her.
Turner’s cousin had a heart attack and died. Her baby died as well.
“Can you imagine what it did to our family to have to bury this young woman and her baby in the same casket?” Turner asked.
Turner shared her story at a Saturday morning event hosted by Harris County Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown and Healthy Women Houston to discuss health issues for expecting mothers in communities of color.
Turner’s cousin’s two other children had to split up and each go with a different aunt.
“She missed all the milestones in their lives because someone did not listen,” Turner said.
The United States has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths among developed countries. The problem is worse for black women like Turner’s cousin: Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die than white mothers, according to a project by ProPublica and NPR. Even tennis star Serena Williams had a near-death experience during pregnancy because her doctor, she said, didn’t listen to her.
“From birth, our babies face discrimination,” Brown said.
For Brown, born and raised in the south side of Houston, pregnancy and death were always intertwined. He was born a month late, 10 pounds and 2 ounces. His mother nearly died giving birth to him — something she liked to remind him of when she was especially frustrated with him. But as an adult, Brown asked her for the specifics.
“Basically, her doctor didn’t listen to her when she was in pain,” the justice of the peace recalled. “It’s not a class issue, it’s a race issue.”
It’s also a societal issue. Valerie Bahar, an OB-GYN and associate medical director at Community Health Choice, said the United States only focuses on women’s health when they’re pregnant.
“It’s amazing how society and even medicine concentrates more on baby than mamma,” she said. “For some reason, we forget that pregnant people are people.”
The majority of the deaths, Bahar said, could be prevented with proper intervention. And for black women, she said, the problem is “flat racism.”
Healthy Women Houston, which co-hosted the event, is a collaboration that supports a mother instead of just focusing on her baby.
“After mom delivers, we don’t focus on her. it’s all about the baby,” said LaToya Shields of the Council on Recovery, a Healthy Woman Houston collaboration organization. “After I delivered, my mom I don’t think remembered my name.”
Shields herself had a difficult delivery experience with both of her children —probably, she thinks, because of her brown skin.
Among the Healthy Woman Houston partners is Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, which delivers meals to alleviate food insecurity, as well as a domestic violence prevention agency.
Many women at the event shared their own stories of discrimination at the doctor’s office. One of the few men in attendance said he should have a 34-year-old son. But his wife had a miscarriage. The doctor, he said, failed to give her options.
Verdell Ingram, a community health activist, hoped to leave the event with ideas for how best to help women she met.
“When women are going to the doctor and they’re pregnant and they’re hurting, they’re not getting addressed,” Ingram said. “I want to share with those women what to do and who to see.”