A Labor of Love: Black Maternal Health Experts Discuss Equity at Town Hall

Native Detroiter Yolanda Brown-Spidell, of Westland, was on the operating room table in her hospital gown about 16 years ago when she firmly stood her ground on what she wanted, and didn’t want, right before her fifth C-section.


Her anaesthesiologist [a young, white male] had told her he was going to do a spinal block to prepare her for labor. But upon experiencing a difficult recovery with her fourth child [a year earlier] after receiving a spinal block she spoke up about her preference because she knew an epidural worked better with her first three children.

“When I had my fourth son I woke up a week and a half later with total paralysis on the right side of my body,” Brown-Spidell said. “When I go into the anaesthesiologist he said you’re doing another spinal. I said, ‘You’re not doing a spinal … we’re going to do an epidural and if you can’t figure out how to do it with me we’ll find somebody who will.’”


Brown-Spidell said that the doctor wound up giving her an epidural after grumbling sarcastically that it was her choice anyway; but not every woman knows she has a voice in the matter when it comes to her body during her pregnancy.


“Had I not known I was in charge of my own health this guy would have did to me what he wanted to do and when you go through caesareans, death is on the table,” she said. “I’m a Black woman with babies — they were 1, 2, 4, and 6 [at the time] — you’re telling me what you’re going to do? I don’t think so.”


Black mothers being empowered while giving birth, statistics, and discussion around inequity were topics during United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s virtual town hall focusing on Equity in Black Maternal Health.


Nkenge Browner, organizing director for Mothering Justice and Shanayl Reed, a doula and community health worker with Henry Ford Hospital, among others, shared what Black women could do to amplify their voices on these critical issues.


Browner said that she has seen the inequity that Black women face when they give birth and it is about “seeing a person as human” and not just in part, based on medical professional’s own biases.

“We can do so by first addressing biases within healthcare professionals,” she said adding that due to COVID-19, there’s been a rise in Black-home births and Black birth workers decided to lower their costs, develop payment plans with their customers, and help make things happen — despite not being supported themselves. “When COVID first started we didn’t know what was what. … and Black birth workers are making sure they offer support to mothers in need and making homebirth an accessible tool.”

Browner added that  while inequity is not going to change in hospitals overnight, it is helpful that Black birth workers are putting the time in to bridge the gap because “in the meantime our babies are still coming.” 

Reed, a doula for the last four years, said that there has been a “surge” of black birth workers, too, in the community doing great but “sacrificial work.”

“We’ve talked to women in our community and they … don’t feel heard or listened to,” Reed said adding that they will feel like they don’t have a voice to express their birthing desires, unclear on things, or complain about issues to no avail. “We discovered that is why Black women and babies are dying,” Reed said.


Reed said that for one in six Black babies are dying in the state in comparison to one in 10 babies overall, which she described as an “alarming number.”

Other startling statistics she said include maternal death rates with Black women statewide accounting for over 26 percent; Hispanic women account for 10 percent and other races of women account for 12 percent.


She added that over the years health professionals are trying to figure out why.

“We know why: We are not being heard, not being listened to,” she said of biases that are being taught over time. “We all naturally have biases. … Be aware and tap into what it takes to unlearn those biases, [that] is what it takes to make progress in the end.”


 Brown-Spidell, who attended the virtual panel, is the executive director of Eaglets Educational Consulting Firm, LLC, and she wants to become a Maternal Infant Health Plan [MIHP] provider, which partners with private companies and provide training for the providers to go out and bring in social workers, registered nurses, lactation counselors, and others to help women who receive Medicaid. She said that after dealing with older children she wants to go on the front side of it and help mothers.


“I was empowered to have a voice,” she said adding that she hopes to help other women find their voice, too. “When I listened to today’s [town hall] it took me back [16 years ago] …  that was my reality. That is real.” 


For more information or to watch the town hall visit here.

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