Op-Ed: Black Moms Matter and Need to Tell Their Healthcare Stories

Cheryl Towns | April 19, 2019 | Opinion
Awareness must be raised of the systemic racism and the special risks many black women face when dealing with medical issues

Cheryl Towns
I was 19 years old, a Trenton High School graduate about five months pregnant with my first child. It was a dreary February and I caught a cold. My doctor at the Medicaid clinic told me to go home and take Tylenol and Sudafed, so I did. The next thing I remember was looking up from the floor at a circle of panicked faces.

My family had found me there; I was having a seizure and vomiting. After waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance, they drove me to the emergency room. I was alert but didn’t know what had happened to me, or my baby.

I asked the emergency-room doctor what happened. Reading from a clipboard, he mentioned that my drug toxicology test had come back negative; then he asked “How long have you been clean?”

I have never used illegal drugs. But I am African-American. I did live in Trenton. This was 1990 — in the middle of a crack epidemic — and this doctor made a dangerous and disrespectful assumption.

My story is not unique but it’s something people don’t often talk about. This week, Black Maternal Health Week has provided an opportunity to raise awareness of both the systemic racism and the special risks many black women face. Now is the time to tell our stories and advocate for policies that will reduce infant and maternal mortality.

Thirty years ago, my doctors failed to treat me with respect or compassion. Today, too much has not changed, especially for African-American women — especially in New Jersey.

‘We can — and must — do better’

Of all pregnancy-related deaths in New Jersey between 2009-2013, more than 46 percent were black women — five times that of their white counterparts. Black babies still die at three times the rate of white newborns and women of all races are more likely to lose their lives during childbirth here than in many other states.

We can — and must — do better. New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy recently launched Nurture NJ, a statewide awareness campaign to reduce infant and maternal mortality and morbidity and ensure equitable maternal and infant care among women and children of all races and ethnicities. The program has a special focus on reducing the higher rate of death among black mothers.

Whether a patient comes in with Medicaid — as I did — or private insurance or no insurance, she should receive quality care. The emergency that nearly killed both me, and my son, was caused by high blood pressure — at nearly stroke levels. And no one had paid attention until it was almost too late.

As a Trenton Health Team nurse, I work every day to provide coordinated, compassionate care to each person who needs help, and to improve the healthcare system to meet the needs of each patient regardless of income or race.

Trenton Health Team recognizes the special needs facing mothers in our community and works closely with community groups to identify healthcare needs and help residents learn to care for — and advocate for — themselves. It’s time for us to speak up.