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Beyoncé and Serena Williams’ Frightening Birth Stories Shine a Light on a Crisis for Black Moms

This is Dearly’s companion piece to IJR’s original investigative article, “How Black Moms Are Fighting Back Against Maternal Death Disparity.”

We tend to assume that everything is easier for celebrities — even pregnancy and birth.

But the rich and famous aren’t immune to larger social problems.

In a recent interview with Vogue, pop icon Beyoncé spoke about the difficulties of being a new mom. It was no surprise to hear she felt pressured to lose the baby weight quickly after her first child. However, the health problems Beyoncé faced when she was pregnant with her twins were both severe and unexpected.

Though she says she tried to approach her second pregnancy differently, she soon had no choice in the matter. By the time she gave birth to Rumi and Sir, Beyoncé had been on bed rest for a month. Suffering from toxemia (also known as preeclampsia, a rare and potentially fatal pregnancy complication), she was swollen, and her weight climbed to 218 pounds. She told Vogue:

My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section. We spent many weeks in the NICU. My husband was a soldier and such a strong support system for me. […] I was in survival mode and did not grasp it all until months later.

What’s more, it took a long time for Beyoncé to recover from the surgery: “After the C-section, my core felt different. It had been major surgery. Some of your organs are shifted temporarily, and in rare cases, removed temporarily during delivery. I am not sure everyone understands that. I needed time to heal.”

After her ordeal, Beyoncé said she has “a connection to any parent who has been through such an experience.” She could have been talking about Serena Williams.

The tennis star and mother has her own horrifying birth story. Though Williams’ pregnancy went well, she also needed an emergency C-section after her daughter’s heart rate became dangerously low during labor. Williams told Vogue that the surgery went well and she had a wonderful moment when they laid her daughter on her chest:

“That was an amazing feeling. And then everything went bad.”

Williams has a history of blood clots and is very familiar with their symptoms. When she began feeling short of breath the day after the delivery, Williams went in search of a nurse and told the hospital staff she needed an IV blood thinner and a CT scan with contrast immediately.

At first, the nurse dismissed Williams’ request as the result of her painkillers. The athlete had to insist on treatment before a doctor came in to do an ultrasound scan of her legs. Williams told Vogue she remembers saying, “I was like, ‘a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip.'”

The ultrasound didn’t find anything, but the CT scan did — multiple tiny blood clots in Williams’ lungs, just as she’d predicted. She told Vogue, “I was like, ‘Listen to Dr. Williams!'”

And that wasn’t the end of Williams’ troubles. The clots in her lungs caused coughing fits that made her C-section wound re-open. When doctors went to operate, they found that the blood thinner needed to treat the embolisms had caused hemorrhaging at the Cesarean site.

Williams needed another operation to put a filter in a major vein that would prevent any more blood clots from traveling to her lungs. A world-class athlete, Williams spent her first six weeks of motherhood unable to leave her bed.

The tragic fact about both Beyoncé’s and Williams’ birth stories is that if they weren’t celebrities, there would be nothing unusual about them. It is a little-known fact that black women die in childbirth at a much higher rate than any other race.

As a recent article from IJR revealed, there is a silent crisis when it comes to black maternal health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, black women are 220 percent more like to die during (or right after) childbirth than white women — even though they don’t have a higher incidence of serious pregnancy complications.

In some places in the U.S., black women die from pregnancy complications at a higher rate than in Rwanda or Kenya. As Williams’ experience demonstrates, black women are less likely to be believed when talking about their symptoms or concerns, and they are less likely to receive epidurals and pain medication.

As Dr. Joia Crear-Perry of the National Birth Equity Collaborative told IJR, “Other countries were looking at us saying how could you be this wealthy country … and your women are dying in childbirth and black women are dying at rates higher than all these other countries that don’t have [as many resources as] you do.”

In response to the crisis, Crear-Perry is working to improve health care access for women and is encouraging researchers to study minority health issues. She is also part of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, an organization working to address inequities in maternal health for black women.

By working to raise awareness of the problem, Crear-Perry and other activists hope to change the outcome for all black mothers. As she told IJR: “The goal is: live in a world where black women not only survive, but thrive in childbirth. Because you don’t want to say, ‘Woo I barely made it, thank you Jesus.'”

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