Guest post by Vanessa Haye. [Trigger warning: miscarriage]
The #NotNeurotic series is published in partnership with BetterYou, whose sponsorship enabled me to pay Vanessa, and four other writers from under-represented backgrounds, for their contributions. You can find more information about BetterYou, and their new Madeleine Shaw range of family health supplements, at the end of this post.
As a 33-year-old, Black British woman of Ghanaian descent, coping through the stigma of infertility and baby loss helped me to find my voice and empowered me to advocate for myself. After a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in September 2019 that nearly killed me, I learned the importance of speaking up. I became more persistent in giving voice to my intuition at times when I’ve doubted the validity of my treatment by health professionals. I think back to appointments where I applied the coded tactic of over exaggerating my symptoms and sometimes lying, just so that my health concerns would be taken seriously.
Even then, going to these lengths just to be listened to and believed, didn’t always work.
The day before I nearly died from internal bleeding, I had just turned eight weeks pregnant, and was reminded that my baby was now the size of a raspberry. It was figuratively appropriate for the bittersweet chain of events that followed, all in the space of 48 hours. That morning, I called my doctor to raise my concerns about the crimson red spotting I noticed, with an accompanied one-sided nagging pain. Despite what the Peanut app reassured me, I knew at this early stage these symptoms weren’t normal. As my sweaty fingertips slid across my phone screen, I went into my ‘favourites’ contact list, and frantically dialled my GP surgery line.
It was the third time I had called in a month to report the symptoms I was having, which I knew were red flags (pun intended), due to a previous miscarriage I had two and a half years before. Given my complex medical history, I would have expected an immediate action plan of careful monitoring and care. Instead, in my doctor’s usual nonchalant tone, her reply was: “Try to relax, and keep your legs raised.”
This unhelpful comment mirrored unwarranted remarks I used to get from friends a few years prior, when my husband and I were having challenges conceiving our first child. It wasn’t the worst I had heard. I had been victim to the most insensitive and misogynistic bedside remarks from medical staff in the NHS. On one occasion during my fertility investigations, whilst the consultant scanned my ovaries for cysts, I was questioned about whether our lack of successful conception was due to us not doing it the ‘right way’.
“How do you manage anything else if you can’t manage a scan?” he said, whilst awkwardly navigating through the tense walls of my vaginal canal. Although the comment was passed off in a witty tenor, I knew he was questioning my ability to withstand penetrative sex. I felt humiliated whilst I continued to clench onto my husband’s clammy fist to mentally numb the pain during the procedure.
When I initially walked into the room, I’d been relieved to see two female Asian staff. Owing to my prior encounters with dismissive male doctors, I was certain that the oestrogen dominance in the room would be a safety net for me. I was wrong. Both practitioners also hissed and kissed their teeth, showing annoyance about my prudishness as I flinched each time I felt the obscure vaginal instrument move another direction in my uterus without warning. One of the female nurses even said, in an intimidating manner, “And you want to have a baby?”
It was experiences like these that made me realise how the intersection of being both Black and a woman compounds my likelihood of medical gaslighting and adverse treatment outcomes. It felt like I was expected to bear the pain; as if I had an innate and superhuman ability because of the colour and supposed ‘thickness’ of my skin.
This misconception of fortitude is somewhat an internalisation of the dark legacies of Jim Crow and James Marion Sims. Black women were subject to forced sterilisation and experimentation without pain relief – a factor that has influenced the enduring legacy of medical racism and is also an ongoing lived experience for Black women globally.
Black women have sometimes expressed their concern at feeling like they are forced into a position of inferiority when dealing with medical professionals. To this day, Black patients like me are more vulnerable to unfavourable sexual and reproductive health outcomes as a result of discriminatory healthcare practices. In the UK, this group has a higher risk of miscarriage with spontaneous pregnancy and IVF, and is twice as likely to experience stillbirth.
Following the IVF cycle that worked, I gave birth to my son in 2018 after an extremely painful and challenging 21-hour labour. Owing to the length of it, I had dealt with nearly six midwives. All except one were hesitant to give me the pain relief that I was begging for. The last midwife, who delivered my precious son, was Black. She advised me to surrender to an epidural and everything changed for the better once I was given my first dose.
Politically correct people would say they ‘don’t see colour’, but there was no denying I looked as grey as the winter clouds that February morning. I was still discharged less than a day after my traumatic birth experience. Three days later, with my tiny four-day-old baby, I was readmitted into the same ward with Sepsis. Despite my prior complaints of feeling under the weather, the midwives were certain that the successful start to breastfeeding was their cue to discharge me.
Again, I was fortunate enough to speak to a Black midwife, who actually happened to be someone who attends my church. She was familiar with my usual countenance and immediately confirmed sepsis after running a few tests in the triage area of the ward. I regularly ask myself if I would still be alive if someone else had dealt with me in triage that day.
My experiences have led me to start an organisation called Femelanin, an online community and safe space that exists to advocate for Black women’s equity, education and increased awareness pertaining to the area of fertility, reproductive health and justice.
When I launched the organisation with an event, just a few weeks after losing the baby, I invited a panel of five women who shared their heart wrenching accounts of similar encounters. One lady spoke of her 15 year wait to be diagnosed with endometriosis, and having to survive on painkillers and prayer due to her pain not being taken seriously.
Another panellist shared her experience, similar to mine, of a near fatal ectopic pregnancy. She was sent home with a misdiagnosis of a threatened miscarriage, despite doctors initially suspecting the pregnancy was in the wrong place. It wasn’t until she was at death’s door and collapsed in a fit that she was rushed to theatre with a blood-filled uterus, and a ruptured fallopian tube. Thankfully the woman concerned has since given birth to her second son.
The poignant themes of medical gaslighting, pain dismissal, and medical errors in these stories are proof that there is an urgent need to decolonise and dismantle the pervasiveness of medical misogynoir. That being said, it is reliant upon the recognition of it and rooting activism in intersectionality, which can open society’s eyes to our unique struggles.
I am unapologetic and proud to be amongst others doing some of this amazing work, at a time when the resurgence of BLM has put Black lives at the forefront. In doing that, we must remember that this includes the lives of Black women like me.
Find Femelanin at Femelanin.org
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