A mother and the birth of a new baby shape the heart of the Christmas story. As the story is told in the New Testament, they were a family of very few resources and had to seek shelter to give birth. Today, for many women in underserved communities like ours—especially women of color—the lack of resources, including basic access to a doctor, is still far too real.
For decades, the shortage of physicians in South L.A. has made it more challenging for pregnant women, new mothers and babies to get the care they need. We know how important prenatal care is: monthly visits to a doctor during pregnancy help ensure the right diet and vitamins and monitor that the baby is developing properly. This care is important for the health and survival of both mother and baby.
Improving maternal and child health through access to doctors and high quality reproductive care has been part of the mission of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital from day one.
But it is not just about access to care. There are a variety of risk factors which disproportionately affect African-American women of all income levels, and we don’t know exactly why. This is what makes care before, during and after pregnancy so important for not just the baby, but also the mother.
On a National Public Radio story this month, we were reminded that African-American mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. Although this disparity is one some of us have known for some time, we are just beginning to form and test hypotheses about why this might be happening.
We are learning that risk factors such as stress and early childhood trauma may lead to disparities in health. We are also starting to consider and examine the ways in which personal and institutional racism influence both health and health care. Research has shown that women of color more often report feeling that their providers don’t respect them and are more likely to dismiss or ignore their complaints.
I had my own experience with this, but I didn’t recognize it until I heard similar stories from others. The doctor who took care of me while I was pregnant with twins never did anything to address the fact that I was not eating and gaining weight normally during my pregnancy. The person who noticed and prompted me to do something was my husband.
This highlights the importance of family and social support in health care, and of giving voice to our concerns. There could be signs that you, your family, partner or friends, are seeing that aren’t being addressed. It can be a life-saving moment to ask those questions and make sure they are answered and addressed, not ignored and dismissed. Each of us has a right to a physician relationship that involves respect and takes our questions seriously.
It is important to note that prenatal and postpartum care is not just about the health of the baby—the mother’s health needs to be a priority as well. In our country, we have a higher rate of maternal deaths than in other developed nations. It is as important for new mothers to get good follow-up care after they deliver as good prenatal care. They should also know the warning signs to look out for—bleeding, swelling, pain—to make sure the mother is recovering without complications that need to be addressed by a doctor. A baby needs a healthy mother. Our Welcome Baby program, where women receive follow-up home visits from a doctor after they deliver their babies, help mothers with postpartum care.
The mothers and babies in our community may come to us with as few resources as the mother who delivered in Bethlehem, or they may have an abundance of resources, but they all deserve the support they need to thrive.
We all need to come together as a community—as family, friends, partners, and health care providers–to give every baby a chance to come into the world with hope, and to take the best care of the mothers who bring them into this world.
Dr. Elaine Batchlor is the chief executive officer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Watts.
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