WASHINGTON, D.C. – With her voice quivering and speaking with shallow breaths, Heather Wilson recalled the moment doctors gave her and her husband the bad news about her pregnancy delivery.
"Words etched in my memory forever: Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, there is no heartbeat," said Wilson. Wilson is the founder of nonprofit Angel Gowns that transforms used wedding dresses into infant burial gowns.
Wilson was diagnosed with preeclampsia during her third trimester but believed doctors could have done more to warn her of the pregnancy complication and save her baby, Kennedy's life.
Wilson told her story as part of a roundtable discussion Tuesday led by Vice President Kamala Harris and other experts to bring attention to Black maternal health issues.
"Make no mistake, Black women in our country are facing a maternal health crisis," Harris said. "Black women are two to three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than other women."
Harris said systemic racial inequity and implicit bias as some of the reasons why there is such disparity.
"The consequences are very real," she said.
The roundtable kicks off Black Maternal Health Week, a campaign that began in 2017 to raise awareness about Black and minority health issues and occurred on the same day the Biden-Harris administration announced initial actions to address the maternal health crisis in the U.S.
Earlier in the day, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation "calling on all Americans to recognize the importance of addressing the crisis of Black maternal mortality and morbidity in this country."
"Health care is a right, not a privilege, and our country needs a health care system that works for all of us," Biden said in a statement.
Studies have shown deep gaps between Black and white women when it comes to maternal health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of maternal death is climbing in the U.S. In 1987, seven out of 100,000 women died due to pregnancy-related complications. In 2014, that number jumped to 18 deaths per 100,000 despite the advances of technology. In 2018, the latest statistics, maternal mortality rate was 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
"The CDC now estimates that 700 to 900 new and expectant mothers die in the U.S. each year, and an additional 500,000 women experience life-threatening postpartum complications," a 2019 Harvard Public Health story read. "More than half of these deaths and near-deaths are from preventable causes, and a disproportionate number of the women suffering are black."
The CDC says that many of these deaths are preventable.
"In the United States of America, race should never determine their health outcomes. Giving birth should never be a death sentence," said Susan Rice, director of Domestic Policy Council, at Tuesday's roundtable. "But America's maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the developed world. And for Black women, they are disproportionately high. Many of these deaths are preventable, and that's what makes this wholly unacceptable."
Dr. Elizabeth Howell, chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said the maternal health crisis extends to the postpartum period.
Black women face elevated rates of depression and mental health, hypertension, and other medical issues that could lead to death, Howell said.
"This maternal health crisis faces Black and brown mothers and babies, families and communities, at a disadvantage over the life course and perpetuates disparity for generations to come," Howell said.
Erica McAfee founded her website and podcast series called Sisters in Loss after her own pregnancy-complication experience. She lost two babies during childbirth, one a stillbirth at 39 weeks and a miscarriage at 18 weeks. She was on life-support after successfully giving birth to a third child while 32 weeks pregnant. She needed eight blood transfusions and had a partial hysterectomy at the age of 28. Her baby boy needed to be resuscitated. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 1, she said.
In 2017, she created Sisters in Loss as an online resource and supports Black and women and "assure Black women are not alone in this journey."
"I knew there were other Black women who experienced a traumatic birth, a pregnancy complication, and I wanted to hear their stories," McAfee said. "I wanted to amplify their voices."
McAfee said she wanted to create a forum to share the stories behind the statistics and help Black women replace their silence with storytelling around their pregnancy complications.
"The stigma and shame that comes with sharing loss stories prevent Black women from achieving the healing they need to thrive in their new normal," McAfee said.
Wilson, the founder of Kennedy's Angel Gowns, said Black and minority women who are pregnant need to speak up to their doctor if they feel uncomfortable or sense if something is wrong. A doula could help navigate through the challenges Black pregnant women face during and after childbirth.
"Not being heard is the No. 1 thing I hear," said Wilson, who is also a doula. "They are not listening to me. And often times, it's too late. I can say there were times I felt that way, too."
Harris said it's time to replace silence with storytelling.
"Everyone should tell the stories so that we can make sure we take seriously this issue [and] elevate it that ultimately we end this issue of Black maternal mortality," Harris said.