A Baby Loses Her Mother
My heart is heavy as I read the story of Shalon Irving’s death three weeks after giving birth to her baby.
Shalon Irving was a 36-year-old Black woman with two Master’s Degrees and a dual subject Ph.D. She worked as an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She grew up in Portland, OR, the daughter of Wanda and Samuel Irving. Shalon was not just a statistic; she was a valued member of our community and a mother to a beautiful baby girl named Soleil.
A simple Google search for Black maternal mortality reveals scores of articles, each detailing the tragic experiences of Black women who hemorrhaged, collapsed, and died after giving birth. These stories not only capture the pain of the families and babies left behind but also the desperate cries for help from pregnant and postpartum Black women.
Shalon Irving’s Story
Shalon Irving’s story is a poignant example of a new mother who gave birth by Cesarean section. After the birth, she developed high blood pressure, swollen legs, and mild headaches. She sought medical help, but her symptoms were not taken seriously. Shalon was hypertensive, with her blood pressure reaching alarming levels: 158/100 on Jan. 16th, 174/118 on Jan. 18th, and 163/99 on Jan. 24th. Tragically, she passed away at home on Jan. 24th.
Shalon’s autopsy attributed her death to heart damage consistent with hypertension, highlighting the complications of high blood pressure.
The Common Thread in Black Maternal Mortality
The common thread in Black maternal mortality includes:
- Silencing Black women’s pleas for medical help.
- Unconscious bias against Black postpartum women.
- Dismissing the health care needs of pregnant and postpartum Black women.
- Not believing that Black women know their bodies and when something is wrong.
- The alarming rate of Black women dying from childbirth.
Maternal mortality can be prevented. The CDC states approximately 80% of maternal deaths can be avoided, with the leading causes being hemorrhage and preeclampsia, connected to high blood pressure. Both causes are preventable in most cases.
Reproductive Justice – The Right to Birth
Black women have the fundamental right to have children and live doing so. They have the right to choose the number of children they want and when to have them. Access to high-quality, respectful maternity care is their right. The U.S. has a broken medical system that contributes to the high maternal mortality rate among Black women. It’s time for health care systems to enforce policies that ensure the best birth outcomes for Black women, leading to healthy babies and mothers.
What Can Pregnant People Do?
Pregnant individuals can take several proactive steps to protect their health and ensure safe pregnancies:
- Educate themselves about the causes of Black maternal mortality.
- Regularly monitor their blood pressure.
- Keep records of blood pressure readings.
- Seek medical care if blood pressure exceeds 130/80.
- Discuss their health care provider’s ability to act on their behalf.
- Work to reduce the risk of Cesarean section births.
- Consider having a doula for labor and postpartum care.
- Opt for midwives for perinatal care, known for good birth outcomes.
- If high-risk, assemble a comprehensive and culturally competent care team consisting of an OB specialist, midwife, and doula from their ethnic community.
- Focus on overall health and wellness.
The Need for Medical Review Boards
The CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and other maternal health experts are advocating for the establishment of review boards in all states to analyze maternal deaths and near misses, with the aim of finding ways to intervene and prevent future tragedies.
A Call to Action
Support scholarship funds that aim to increase the number of Black doctors, nurses, midwives, and doulas. Advocate for regular cultural competency training for all health care professionals and the creation of a grievance policy for Black women to document their birth and postpartum experiences.