No Mason-Dixon Line divides maternal mortality in Ohio and Mississippi

Viola Butler at 38 years.

Viola Butler Penro, my grandmother, bled to death in 1951 shortly after giving birth to my Uncle Isaiah in the colored wing of Mississippi’s Tupelo Community Hospital which boasted its own sink and toilet. Her death was quick. Her aunt Viney left her side to get coffee in the segregated cafeteria but minutes later found her dead. Dr. P.K. Thomas, Jr. was Tupelo Community Hospital’s only gynecologist-obstetrician for more than 15 years. Whether he ever attended my grandmother as she hemorrhaged to death is lost to history.

Her death left eight children motherless. Every year her surviving eight children hold a macabre memorial of her death day and my uncle’s birthday. Her death casts a shadow of trauma over their lives in abandonment anxiety, fear of pregnancies, and melancholy.

Her death casts a shadow of trauma over their lives in abandonment anxiety, fear of pregnancies, and melancholy.

“In obstetrics, things go from good to bad very quickly,” says Dr. Veronica Gillespie-Bell of Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. Dr. Gillespie-Bell leads Louisiana’s Safe Birth Initiative which reduced severe hemorrhaging in women in labor by 40% from 2016 to 2019.

According to the Center for Community Solutions, the Ohio Department of Health’s comprehensive report on maternal mortality shows that there were 186 pregnancy-related deaths between 2008 and 2016. The report finds that Black women were two and half times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related death than white women over the same time period. As a rate, this equates to 29.5 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women compared to 11.5 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women. More than half of all pregnancy-related deaths (57 percent) were likely preventable.

From 2016 to 2019, there were 87 Black children born who will commemorate their birthday as their mother’s death day.

 “Same door, different service”

Artist Elizabeth Catlett

Imagining the worst of the pre-Civil Rights South, I asked my Uncle Isaiah to describe Tupelo Community Hospital. I imagined backdoor entrances, black bodies lined in hallways, and filthy conditions. He dispelled these notions.

“There was no backdoor entrance. Black people and white people were in rooms right next to each other. But, black people had to wait for all white people to go first. It didn’t matter what order you came in. Same door, different service.”

But, black people had to wait for all white people to go first. It didn’t matter what order you came in. Same door, different service.”

Same door, different service mirrors the story of healthcare disparities and reproductive justice in Cleveland, Ohio. Since the CDC began disaggregating data based upon race in maternal death and infant mortality, Ohio continues to rank in the lowest fifth percentile of 50 states along with Mississippi.

“Beauty for Ashes”

Artist Elizabeth Catlett

The Beauty for Ashes collaborative journalism project grew out of the death of my grandmother and the livelong suffering of her motherless children. We set out to interrogate and find solutions to infant mortality and maternal death in Ohio. We heard, recorded, and memorialized the stories of nine Black people from Cleveland overwrought from the death of an infant or a beloved mother. If disparities in healthcare and birth outcomes stemmed from institutional racism, then the women’s stories would provide the solutions.

We recorded a story about a woman forced to wait four days after learning her fetus was dead before being induced into labor to deliver a nearly full-term stillborn. We recorded a story of a 38-year old Black woman abruptly transferred in the middle of labor to an unfamiliar hospital and an unknown doctor because her usual hospital feared delivering a high-risk pregnancy.

Something beautiful and unexpected happened when we gathered the group of Black women to tell their stories. They no longer resided within their individual grief but perceived themselves as a collective of suffers seeking reproductive justice.

Over the next few weeks, we will tell their stories.

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