aftershock

Hulu’s Aftershock

A Look at Birth Trauma and the Maternal Health Crisis

“A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police.” A jarring statement uttered by expecting mom Felicia Ellis in the Hulu documentary “Aftershock.” “Aftershock” explores the effects of the maternal health crisis in the United States, a crisis that impacts Black women disproportionately. They account for 80% of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States. Black women have become abundantly aware of how negligent the healthcare community can be. They constantly have to get second opinions and double-check their doctor’s work. Black women also are forced to have uncomfortable conversations with their partners about what to do if they don’t survive childbirth. Not too different from the conversation Black men have with their families about navigating police interactions. “Aftershock” focuses on maternal deaths and hospital negligence. However, another question arises: what happens to the Black women that survive traumatic births?

The Victims and the Survivor

Shamony Gibson was the first victim that is discussed in the documentary. She delivered her baby via C-section. For weeks following the delivery, Shamony experienced increasing symptoms of the pulmonary embolism that would later cause her death. Her concerns were left untreated by doctors until it was too late. Even when her family called for an ambulance, the assumption from all of the EMTs was that she was on drugs. Amber Rose Isaac was the second victim. Her blood platelet count dropped significantly and was only discovered when she hired a midwife. Unfortunately, by that time she was forced to have an emergency C-section. Since her blood was unable to clot due to the low platelets, she ultimately died. Low platelet counts are easily treatable when discovered in time. With a pulmonary embolism, time is also the key to successful treatment. Instead, two babies were left without mothers. 

Finally, there is me, the survivor. From the moment I had my first ultrasound, I knew there was a high chance delivery could claim my life. Unfortunately, due to a previous doctor’s negligence, it almost did. Upon learning in 2019 that endometriosis and uterine fibroids ran in my family, and also having a health scare, I was referred to a specialist. I was told that I had a small fibroid but it was not an issue unless I was unable to conceive. When I did finally deliver my baby in 2022, that fibroid had grown to the size of a large potato due to the estrogen in my system. My uterus became unrecognizable. I lost all of the blood in my body because of the fibroid’s excessive bleeding. Me and my child survived due to an excellent surgical and trauma team and an OBGYN that left absolutely nothing to chance.  

No Exemptions

I was naive in thinking that because my file showed me as a member of an employee’s plan, I somehow had better odds than the next Black woman. Amber Rose Isaac’s mother worked at the hospital where she delivered and ultimately died. Beyoncé and Serena Williams almost lost their lives during childbirth due to negligent doctors. We’re all at risk of subpar healthcare. The onus is unfortunately on us to make sure we are receiving the best care possible. I changed OBGYNs three times during my pregnancy because I didn’t feel like I was being heard. Secondly, I read all doctor’s notes after each visit to make sure that they matched what I was told in the appointment. Finally, I researched the terms and phrases to make sure I understood. The truth is, when it’s time to deliver, we are still at the mercy of the medical team.  

Birth Trauma

According to the Birth Trauma Association, birth trauma is defined as distress experienced by a mother during or after childbirth. It is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s important to clarify that while all births might be uncomfortable or painful, not all births are traumatic. Some examples of factors that can cause birth trauma are poor pain relief, emergency C-sections, stillbirth, and extreme medical intervention. While the Birth Trauma Association focuses on the trauma of the birthing parent, the partner or witness can also experience birth trauma. The fathers from “Aftershock” would be an example of a non-birthing parent experiencing birth trauma. Symptoms of birth trauma are having flashbacks or nightmares about the traumatic event, avoiding things that are reminders of the trauma (including the baby), extreme unhappiness, and hypervigilance. Some of these symptoms are similar to postpartum depression (PPD), but they’re distinct conditions and need to be treated separately. 

The struggle of being a survivor of birth trauma is that there are not enough resources. Most mental health providers lump birth trauma with PPD. This means that the treatments are geared more towards depression than trauma. Even worse, a lot of the current trauma specialists only focus on the birthing parent. I didn’t even know there were therapists that focused on birth trauma until I started doing my own research. Hospitals would benefit from having a trauma therapist for a variety of reasons. For starters, it acknowledges that the patient’s experience is important. Statistically speaking, when a patient’s feelings are addressed, the likelihood of malpractice lawsuits goes down. The patient trusts that even in an inconvenient situation, their doctors did the best they could, while also knowing they have a person to turn to if they struggle with the aftermath.      

Conclusion

Documentaries like “Aftershock” are important because they bring these issues to the forefront in hopes to affect change on a larger scale. These horrific experiences leave families destroyed and survivors with lifelong birth trauma. While “Aftershock” focuses more on midwifery as the solution, that is not always an option. In my case, being my own advocate saved my life. I knew a hospital birth and C-section was inevitable. I switched doctors until I found one that was on the same page as me. If there was any doubt, I made it a priority to find a new physician. I also made it a priority to work through my birth trauma. I didn’t end up needing a therapist, but I had people I could reach out to if I did. Hopefully, one day the United States will return to making the patient the priority instead of the hospital making money.

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