You can repeat all the statistics in the world about the alarming Black women’s maternal mortality rate in the U.S., but the numbers don’t always speak as loudly as the individual stories. Many are still demanding answers about the death of 26-year-old Brooklyn mom Sha-Asia Washington earlier this month, and perhaps the story of another mother’s near-death will help more of us realize what this crisis looks like. It’s the story of political activist and CNN correspondent Bakari Sellers and his wife, Ellen Rucker Sellers, who believes her survival after giving birth to twins last year is due to the fact that she had Black female doctors at her side.
“My number one political issue is African-American [maternal] mortality,” Sellers told TMZ, discussing a passage in his new memoir, My Vanishing Country. “We know that Black women are three times, four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. … In our health-care delivery system, the pain that Black folk go through is not looked at through the same urgency as white folk in this country. So it’s that implicit bias in our health-care delivery system that we have to root out, and we have to begin to be advocates.”
Sellers writes in his book that he and his wife were well aware of this bias in medicine, and he points to the fact that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam posed in blackface in his medical school yearbook. In an interview with Madame Noire last year, Rucker Sellers said she decided to switch from a white male doctor to a Black woman when she was going through IVF in 2018, because the white male doctor made her feel like “a number.” When she got pregnant with twins, she also decided to go to an OB-GYN practice of Black women.
“Bakari and I knew the statistics,” Rucker Sellers, a chiropractor and cofounder of Rucker Roots haircare, wrote in a blog post last year. “My family had experienced loss when my father’s baby sister died nine days after giving birth more than forty years ago. Unfortunately, the mortality rate for Black mothers has increased since. All of those factors led me to the choices I made when I found out I was pregnant with twins. As soon as I found out, I switched my OB/GYN to a group of doctors that looked like me. Fortunately, I had personal relationships with this group of physicians and I knew that they would take my pregnancy symptoms and treatment seriously.”
She had a healthy, uneventful pregnancy and carried the twins to 38 weeks. Their birth via C-section appeared to go smoothly, also. It was five hours later, at around 11 pm, when they were meeting with a lactation consultant about tandem feeding, that things went south, fast. Rucker Sellers passed out and threw up. Her husband said he called for nurses, who were slow to respond and didn’t seem to recognize the urgency of the situation.
“[T]he next time I came to, he’s out of the door screaming down the hallway, like, ‘Somebody help my wife!’ and nobody was responding to him,” she recalled in her interview with Madame Noire. “That was five minutes or so of no response or maybe even longer, maybe even 10 minutes or so. And I was in and out of consciousness. I don’t know exactly the timing, but he was very mad. He actually even filed a complaint with the hospital, because he was very upset about the fact that they weren’t listening.”
Fortunately, the couple were in close contact with her doctor, via group text, phone calls, and FaceTime. In very little time, three of the doctors in the practice showed up at the hospital.
It turned out a uterine fibroid was preventing her uterus from clamping down, causing her to hemorrhage, with the blood pooling in her uterus and clotting there. Black women are more prone to severe uterine fibroids than white women, and while fibroids don’t always cause complications in childbirth, they do need to be monitored closely for problems such as what Rucker Sellers experienced.
“Dr. Paige came in with an Ultrasound machine to ultrasound my abdomen. Dr. Freeman checked my cervix. Dr. Cannon was checking my bleeding and vitals and talking with Bakari,” Rucker Sellers wrote of her doctors’ swift response. Before they took her into surgery, all three held her hands to pray.
“And in that moment, I knew that this is why I chose these women to care for me,” she wrote. “I knew they would do everything in their power, wisdom and experience to save my life.”
Rucker Sellers bled so much, she had to receive 7 units of blood and 6 units of platelets. She was on a ventilator and in the ICU for 36 hours after her surgery. She and her husband don’t know what would have gone differently if she had had different doctors and if Sellers hadn’t been there to advocate for her.
“I’m just thankful that I was there to raise my voice for my wife,” he told TMZ. “I don’t know if you all have ever said that college prayer when you drink a little too much on a Friday night and in the morning you say dear god, get me through this. I promise I’ll never do X, Y, and Z. Well, that’s where I was, and we were just thankful that we had Black doctors. Black female doctors who understood my wife’s pain and were able to make sure she could be here with me today.”
We are all for having more Black women doctors in the field. But this story, as well as all the numbers out there that we will keep repeating until something changes, should wake up all the other doctors to the fact that they need to listen to their Black patients and do better.
When it’s story time for Sadie and Stokely, and your kids, we hope they enjoy some of these children’s books starring girls of color.