CDC: Childbirth much riskier for Black mothers

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It's an alarming statistic that black women in America are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Anika Williams, a labor and delivery nurse at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, takes care of hundreds of women and their babies each year. But the mother of 6, pregnant with her seventh child, had no idea she might be at-risk of complications herself. Three years ago, she gave birth to her daughter Maya.

Then, 2 weeks after she left the hospital and went home, Williams developed a crippling migraine, unlike anything she'd ever experienced.

"It traveled all the way down my neck, and I couldn't open my eyes," Williams remembers. "And I was, like, 'I have to go to the emergency room!'

Her blood pressure was dangerously high, 200/180. The problem? The 36-year old had developed pericarditis or inflammation of the lining around her heart. The same thing had happened 3-years earlier, in 2011, a few months after the birth of her 5th child. This time the symptoms were different.

"I was laying in the bed one night, and I couldn't hardly catch my breath," Williams says.  "It felt like a lot of pressure on my chest."

Because both heart episodes had happened weeks after she'd given birth, Williams didn't think they were connected to her pregnancies. But her new OB-GYN, Morehouse Healthcare's Dr.  Barbara Simmons, did. She says heart problems are a major issue for pregnant women.    

"The heart is the source of the blood flow to the placenta, to the baby," Dr. Simmons says.  "The heart is under tremendous stress during a pregnancy."

Dr. Simmons says her Black patients like Anika often face a double challenge when they get pregnant.

"African American women tend to have pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity," she says.

And, Simmons says, Black women tend to access prenatal care later, which can make it harder to get their health issues under control early.

"I see it all the time," Dr. Simmons says.  "Patients don't necessarily plan for the pregnancy. So, if they haven't planned for the pregnancy, it doesn't give them an opportunity to have their blood pressure under control. It hasn't given them an opportunity to decrease their weight."

Simmons wasn't concerned about Williams' weight, which is normal, she was worried about her heart.

Pericarditis can sometimes develop into cardiomyopathy, or severe heart damage, which can make subsequent pregnancies much riskier.

"And that (cardiomyopathy) can lead to actual death," Simmons says.  "So, it's important, especially with heart health."

Tests show Anika's heart has recovered and is functioning normally. So she will be able to deliver her baby without needing a caesarian-section. Still, she's decided this baby will be her last.

"They don't want me to labor again," Williams says. "Because pregnancy causes stress on your heart. We don't want to do that again. So, I think 7 is the number of completion."