US Olympic star testifies on racial disparities in maternal mortality

Washington (AFP) –


Six-time US Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix was heavily pregnant but felt in good shape apart from her slightly swollen feet, when she went to the doctor for a routine appointment.

She was told she needed to drop her plans for an ESPN photo-shoot and get to a hospital immediately, the black, 33-year-old sprinter told Congress Thursday during a hearing on racial disparities in maternal mortality.

Once there, "My doctors told me that not only was my baby at risk, but I was at risk, too," she said. "All I cared about in that moment was my daughter surviving" she recalled, but did not seriously believe her own life was at stake.

"Mothers don't die from childbirth, right? Not in 2019, not professional athletes, not at one of the best hospitals in the country, and certainly not to women who have a birthing plan and a birthing suite lined up," she said.

Her doctors however disagreed, later informing her she had a severe case of pre-eclampsia which could prove fatal.

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that occurs in pregnancy and is characterized by high blood pressure. Doctors often decide to induce delivery early. Felix was seven months into her pregnancy at the time.

The medical team performed an emergency C-section and her baby girl Camryn was born on November 28, 2018.

"She wasn't crying, but she was breathing and that's all I needed," Felix said. The pair left hospital a month later.

"The US is one of only three countries in the world, where the rate of maternal deaths is rising again," said Patrice Harris, president-elect of the American Medical Association.

Seven hundred Americans die each year from complications arising from their pregnancies. But the risk is three to four times greater for African American women than for their white counterparts.

And according to data published in the Lancet, the US has among the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world.

"I learned that my story was not so uncommon, there were others like me - just like me. Black like me, healthy like me, doing their best -- just like me," said Felix.

Research on the subject has pointed to poverty and lack of health insurance as obvious risk factors which disproportionately affect blacks.

Diabetes, obesity and hypertension are also more prevalent among black Americans regardless of social class. But discrimination plays a key role, according to experts who are backed by a wealth of studies.

Doctors may, subconsciously or otherwise, spend less time with black patients, ignore symptoms or underestimate the concerns raised.

"We all have implicit biases, they are our blind spots, but first we have to name them," said Harris, who is herself black.

"I just really encourage African American mothers to have a voice and to really use it," said Felix.