Doula advocates for Black women to be taken seriously in the delivery room

CHARLOTTE — Michelle Hunnicutt can recount the day she gave birth to her firstborn son like it was yesterday.

“That very day of birth was actually horrific,” said Hunnicutt. “It was terrible. From hemorrhaging to my son being in the NICU for 60 days.”

Twenty-four years ago, she struggled in labor and knew she needed a cesarean section because of his size.

“I kept telling [the hospital staff], they weren’t listening to me,” said Hunnicutt. “I kept saying ‘he is, he is killing me right now. Just take him.’ They were like, ‘No, let’s just wait, let’s just wait.”

Her son survived but had developmental delays, which Hunnicutt blames in part on the delayed decision to perform a C-section.

The helplessness she felt that day pushed her to become a doula.

“If I had had a doula at that time, I think that she would have been able to say, or coach me into saying, ‘Michelle, I think we should probably talk to the doctor about you going ahead and having a C-section, and your blood pressure is high. Your son has flatlined a couple of times,’” Hunnicutt said.

As a doula, she coaches women before, during and after pregnancy. She’s in the delivery room as the advocate she didn’t have, in part because she knows how dire the consequences can be.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related issues than white women.

People could assume income, education and health disparities explain the statistics. However, Associate Director of Research at Duke Cook Center, Doctor Keisha Bentley-Edwards, says otherwise.

“Maternal mortality decreases significantly, drastically, for educated white women,” said Bentley-Edwards. “But it doesn’t for educated Black women. So there is something going on in the system that is causing issues.”

The CDC’s website lists contributing factors for maternal mortality among Black women, including systemic racism and implicit bias as two factors.

The problem has been front and center in Washington, D.C. Vice President Kamala Harris has held roundtables and forums hoping to tackle the crisis. Lawmakers have heard from patients and experts in meetings of the U.S. House Oversight Committee.

During her opening statement of “Hearing Examining America’s Black Maternal Health Crisis,” a 2021 congressional hearing, Congresswoman and Chair Carolyn Maloney said, “To understand, we have to take the blinders off our history and acknowledge that our health care system, including reproductive health care, was built on a legacy of systemic racism.”

Dr. Bentley-Edwards explains how she’s seen that disparity through her research.

“One thing that really shocked me is that often there’s, ‘oh well black women just aren’t as healthy’, says Bentley-Edwards. “But when you start looking at similarly situated Black and white women in terms of health, for example, a history of hypertension or hypertension in pregnancy, you still see a higher risk for adverse outcomes for Black women.”

Based on Hunnicutt’s experience as a patient and a doula, she believes the biggest danger lies in Black patients not being taken seriously when they say something is wrong.

“You just have to let the doctors know,” Hunnicutt said. “And if they don’t listen, if you have a partner, you need to let your partner be vocal as well. Because those headaches can turn into honestly can turn into death.”

Hunnicutt says while doulas aren’t medical professionals, they do have some medical training and can help guide you through making difficult decisions. Midwives are medical professionals who in some states could act as your OB/GYN.

Doulas can monitor your diet, exercise and blood test results during pregnancy and help expectant parents create a birthing plan. They may also notice concerning signs, symptoms or changes that could be overlooked by a patient. They can also provide postnatal support, which can be a dangerous time for women up to a year after delivery.

Even if you don’t use a doula, Hunnicutt wants patients to be empowered to speak up when something doesn’t seem right and don’t take no for an answer. She recommends having someone else with you in the delivery room who can be firm and vocal on your behalf as your advocate.

If you’d like more information about doulas in Charlotte, click here.

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