BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Angelica Lyons knew it was dangerous for Black women to give birth in America.
As a public health instructor, she taught college students about racial health disparities, including the fact that Black women in the U.S. are nearly three times more likely to die during pregnancy or delivery than any other race. Her home state of Alabama has the third-highest maternal mortality rate in the nation.
Then, in 2019, it nearly happened to her.
What should have been a joyous first pregnancy quickly turned into a nightmare when she began to suffer debilitating stomach pain.
Her pleas for help were shrugged off, she said, and she was repeatedly sent home from the hospital. Doctors and nurses told her she was suffering from normal contractions, she said, even as her abdominal pain worsened and she began to vomit bile. Angelica said she wasn’t taken seriously until a searing pain rocketed throughout her body and her baby’s heart rate plummeted.
Rushed into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section, months before her due date, she nearly died of an undiagnosed case of sepsis.
Even more disheartening: Angelica worked at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the university affiliated with the hospital that treated her.
Her experience is a reflection of the medical racism, bias and inattentive care that Black Americans endure. Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate in the United States — 69.9 per 100,000 live births for 2021, almost three times the rate for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Black babies are more likely to die, and also far more likely to be born prematurely, setting the stage for health issues that could follow them through their lives.
“Race plays a huge part, especially in the South, in terms of how you’re treated,” Angelica said, and the effects are catastrophic. “People are dying.”
To be Black anywhere in America is to experience higher rates of chronic ailments like asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and, most recently, COVID-19. Black Americans have less access to adequate medical care; their life expectancy is shorter.
From birth to death, regardless of wealth or social standing, they are far more likely to get sick and die from common ailments.
Black Americans’ health issues have long been ascribed to genetics or behavior, when in actuality, an array of circumstances linked to racism — among them, restrictions on where people could live and historical lack of access to care — play major roles.
Discrimination and bias in hospital settings have been disastrous.
The nation’s health disparities have had a tragic impact: Over the past two decades, the higher mortality rate among Black Americans resulted in 1.6 million excess deaths compared to white Americans. That higher mortality rate resulted in a cumulative loss of more than 80 million years of life due to people dying young and billions of dollars in health care and lost opportunity.
A yearlong Associated Press project found that the health challenges Black Americans endure often begin before their first breath.
The AP conducted dozens of interviews with doctors, medical professionals, advocates, historians and researchers who detailed how a history of racism that began during the foundational years of America led to the disparities seen today.
To read Kat Stafford’s story featuring Angelica Lyons and experience the Associated Press’ multi-media chronicle, including photos by Wong Maye-E, click here.
Other parts of the series:
- Black children are more likely to have asthma. A lot comes down to where they live
- Black kids face racism before they even start school. It’s driving a major mental health crisis
- High blood pressure plagues many Black Americans. Combined with COVID, it’s catastrophic
- A lifetime of racism makes Alzheimer’s more common in Black Americans