Black Doctors, Black Women, and Pregnancy:
I Was Pregnant With A Hole In My Heart & Doctors Told Me To Toughen Up
As told to Veronica Wells-Puoane of NoSugarNoCreamMag.com
Brooke was pregnant with her second son when she realized something was wrong with her heart. But her doctors dismissed her, ignoring her concerns. Her story is one of thousands when it comes to Black women being invalidated by their doctors during pregnancy.
I have an eight-year-old, a six-year-old, and two and a half-year-old. But the baby who I knew something was wrong with, was my middle child, my six-year-old. With my first child, it was the first time I had been pregnant and I ended up having an emergency C-section, which I was told later by my cardiologist and all the doctors who did my surgery, they all say, ‘Oh my God. You had a baby and didn’t know you had this heart issue? And no one ever knew it?’
Thankfully I had an emergency C-section with my first son. I was literally pushing him and he had the cord wrapped around his neck twice and so they realized that when his heart rate started dropping, nurses ran in, emergency C-section. So that saved my life. I just did not know it. I didn’t realize it.
The second go-round, two years later I’m pregnant with my second child and I went to the same physician’s practice, but it was a different doctor who delivered me this time. At about six months pregnant, I just, I knew. It was my heart. I just knew it. I could feel it and everything in me was saying ‘Something is not right with your heart.’ So I was begging for an appointment. I had two appointments. And they said we’re going to have you meet with our nurse.
It turns out, as I researched later, this was actually just a medical assistant. She was not a nurse. They put me off, they had me see her and she took my blood pressure, had me pee in a cup and that was it. She saw me for five minutes, and asked me what I was talking about. I said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I can just tell you that something doesn’t feel right with my heart.’ She dismissed me. That happened twice. And then finally, on the third appointment, they let me see the doctor and she literally told me, ‘You’re pregnant, these are pregnancy symptoms. Stop acting like you haven’t been pregnant before.’
She told me to just relax. And the thing about all this. I had Black doctors every time. I had three different Black women deliver each of my sons. She dismissed me and I literally left her office crying. I was by myself, six months pregnant and I went right across the street to the actual hospital I was going to deliver in. I had a primary care doctor there, so I went straight to her office. I mean boo-hoo-ing, in tears at this point. And I begged them to let me see her.
She welcomed me in and she’s the one who I credit with saving my life because she took me in. I didn’t have an appointment. She listened to my heart with just a stethoscope and she immediately heard a murmur. She said, ‘Something sounds a little off.’ But she was really calm and kept me calm. And she said, ‘I’m going to refer you to a cardiologist, we’ll get you back in tomorrow.’ She’s calmed me down. This is a Black woman physician as well. Told me it’s going to be okay.
‘You’ve still got some time before you have the baby. We’re going to make sure everything is all right.’ I went back to cardiology and he couldn’t do everything because I was pregnant so they couldn’t run certain scans and x rays and stuff with the baby being in there. But I was reassured by that cardiologist, –which I’m not sure what his ethnicity was– but I could kind of sense that something wasn’t right, just looking at their faces. Listening to how they were talking to me.
But he said, ‘You’re going to be okay. You’re scheduled for a C-section?’ And I said yes because that doctor would not do a VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section.) She would not do it. That was just their preference. So luckily I was scheduled for that. So he said, ‘You’ll be just fine, you’re not going to put stress on your body by pushing, you’re going to be okay. But as soon as you deliver, I want to see you back here.’ So he had me come back like twice before I had my baby, and then I was supposed to go back within a month after having him but life got in the way. I had a newborn and a two-and-a-half-year-old at that time.
I waited about three months and when I went back to the cardiologist, he did what’s called a bubble study and it’s where they take, the syringe, they fill it with saline. And it went through my groin and they squeeze it and it literally goes up through an artery and through your heart. And when they shoot through, they can tell if you have a hole in your heart. And I didn’t know that’s what they were looking for, but the tech who did it literally jumped back from the screen. So I knew something was really wrong.
So it took like a week and the cardiologist came in and I remember he had no bedside manner and said, ‘You’ve got a big hole in your heart.’ And that’s when I knew. So it took all of that for me to find out that I was walking around like a ticking time bomb. Every nurse, every doctor that I’ve had has told me ‘Thank God I had a C-section.’ They’re looking at me like it’s surprising that you’re alive after having children because you could have had a stroke and died.
So I ended up having open-heart surgery before my baby was even walking and literally the week I got out of the hospital I was at my mom’s and I was propped up in the recliner and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t lift him. I couldn’t do anything. My baby stood up in the floor and walked. That was the first time he ever walked. He waited for me.
NSNC: Aww that’s so sweet! And then you had a baby after the second one?
I did. I had one more and that is the last one. I swear. I had a totally different experience than the first two times. The first time was okay. I guess it was your standard issues of a lady having her first baby. The second time was horrible because I didn’t feel listened to it all. I was in Virginia delivering my first two children. The third time I was in Texas, so I had my third son in Plano, Texas, with a Black female physician and she was absolutely phenomenal.
She went above and beyond to make sure that I was okay and she ended up– I had of course, another C-section– and she took him four weeks early because she didn’t want there to be any complications or anything with my heart. She’s awesome. I love her. I would recommend her to anyone.
NSNC: What was her name?
Dr. Tania White-Jackson. And she’s in Plano, Texas.
NSNC: Did you go back to the other OB-GYN and tell her you missed a heart condition?
I was livid. I did. And my mom is the one. My mom is a calm person. I’m not so calm. I wanted to file a lawsuit. I said, ‘Mom, my baby is about to go to school for free.’ And not only that, I could have died. I had two babies with this practice and they didn’t catch this within the span of two-three years?! So I did go back and that’s how I found out the medical assistant was not an actual nurse. I asked for my records, they tried to give me the run around about giving me my actual records and giving my new doctor the records. It was still a bunch of dismissiveness. Of course, they never admitted to any fault. I didn’t pursue it any further after talking with my mom, she felt like it was too stressful. It would be too much. Just let it go.
I still, to this day, think about it. I’m like, ‘I shouldn’t have let that go.’ But all around from the billing lady to the doctors, they were just very, very dismissive.
NSNC: You had Black doctors. Why do you think some of them were so dismissive of you?
That’s what scares me.
I don’t know if it’s something they just teach in med school. I don’t know if as a Black woman they thought, ‘Hey, you’re tougher than that.’ One other thing I can share with you, so this was my second baby, all this happened with. But with my first, I remember when I got admitted, I had 19 hours of labor because I didn’t know that I was going to have the C-section 19 hours first and then I was pushing him and that’s when they said ‘Stop. Something’s wrong. His heart rate dropped.’ And they wheeled me right into the operating room. Totally unexpected.
So the nurse, the day after I had my baby-this was a White lady– but it was a nurse in the hospital and she, I felt she put a bad omen on me. She said to me, because I was in so much pain, but I didn’t realize you have 19 hours of labor and then you get cut open, that’s going to hurt. But I was in so much pain and they were trying to get me to get up and walk to make sure there were no blood clots. And she was rushing me. So I was crying. I didn’t scream the whole 19 hours. I was not a screamer or anything. But I was just sitting in a puddle of tears.
And she saw me and she said, ‘You know what, you really need to toughen up. I have heart surgery patients who walk the first day.’ Sure enough, I had heart surgery some years later. That’s such a bad omen. That was a White woman who was a nurse there. And since I ended up being a heart surgery patient, I just really didn’t appreciate that. I don’t know if this is a cultural physician thing that they learned, like, women overall or is it just Black women, ‘Y’all need to just toughen up. You can do it. And I have four kids…’ And I’m just like everyone’s different. You need to listen when people are telling you something.
NSNC: So what was it like having open heart surgery with your baby being so young? How were you feeling about that process?
Honestly, I was terrified. My son was born September 5, 2012. I had my surgery July 12, 2013. I felt like it was something I had to do. My mother and grandmother were with me when the cardiologist and then the surgeon were in the room and they were telling me this is the final diagnosis, this is what we know, this is what we’ve got to do to fix it and they told me, ‘If you don’t do this, your life expectancy, you may live to 50, maybe.’ And they told me that it would be painful. Very painful. They told me every year would be worse and worse for me. I would basically die a slow, painful death. And I knew I had this two-and-a-half-year-old and I had an infant and I didn’t want that for them.
My first thought, right there at that moment was, ‘When can you do the surgery?’ Again I’m crying. My mom and grandmother are shocked. And I’m just like, when? And so they’re telling me, ‘Wait a minute.’ And the doctor, you know, he’s a doctor, so he’s like, ‘Well we can do it in two weeks.’ I took the first available surgery, it ended up being 7/12. I told him to book it. I have these kids I have to live for.
NSNC: How old were you at the time?
I was 29. So 29 years of walking around with a hole in my heart and not knowing it. So I, you know, it was terrifying, but I tried to put on a brave face. I think that’s when some truth comes in. As a Black woman, and seeing my mom think that maybe it was her fault, maybe something she did. And dealing with all of that, and dealing with doctors who were dismissive, now I have these White men telling me this is what you’ve got to do, I decided to take control for myself and I said, ‘I want to do this as soon as possible because I don’t want my kids to see me dying.
And I felt like if this is the only chance I have to live a decent and good life, I want to do it and I want to do it now. I’ve never been so terrified, I just didn’t let everyone know. So, I thought good thoughts, I meditated, I prayed. I did all of that and we booked it. All of my family tried to talk me out of it and I said, ‘No, I’m doing it. This is what I want to do.’ And that was it. When I actually got wheeled in, I still felt fresh from a C-section basically so it was kind of awkward.
I wasn’t prepared for certain things that happened after the scarring. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to lift my baby for months. That was very hard and you know, then of course he was right at the age where he could have started walking. I ended up spending eight days in the hospital. I refused. I told them, do not bring my children here, no matter what happens. And if I were to die, I asked. I said, don’t bring my babies to the funeral. I don’t want them to have that in their memory.
So I had two weeks to prepare. So I prepared a living will and we did a photoshoot. I had a whole photoshoot on the beach with my boys in Virginia Beach because I wanted– if I were to not be here, I wanted that to be the last memory or pictures that they had.
NSNC: How was the recovery?
It was hard and I’m hardheaded. So I do take on the stigma and stereotype you hear of Black women feeling like you’ve got to be strong for everybody and you neglect yourself. So I was like, I’ve got to power through it. I want to hold my baby again. I want to be able to walk up and down the stairs. I wanted to drive. I couldn’t drive for seven weeks. Even then I had to literally clutch this pillow when I was turning the wheel or when I would take a deep breath, I had to clutch onto that pillow. But I just put it in my head that I had to push through. And I made it through.
I remember telling myself as I was going into surgery away from my family, ‘If you come out of this, you’ve gotta not panic. You’ve got to stay calm. No matter what this looks like or what happens to you and you’re alive, don’t panic or it’s going to be worse.’ Sure enough, I forget everything else that happened but when I was waking up.
It took three days. I was out for three days. And there were tubes down my throat. And your first instinct is to panic. And I just remember thinking, you’ve got to be stronger than that. So I opened my eyes and I could see my mom across the room. I couldn’t talk to her, so I just started motioning for paper and a pen. This other nurse–I had such a terrible experience. This woman was stepping on my tubes. The tube that was going into my throat and didn’t realize it.
I was asking for paper and pen. I just wrote to my mother ‘I don’t like her’ or ‘She’s mean.’ Something to that effect. So she realized it and switched out the nurses. It sucked but it was ok after somebody stops stepping on the tubes coming out of your head.
So eight days in the hospital. Five of those were in the ICU. The other three, I was in like the normal cardiology wing.
NSNC: Is it normal to be asleep for three days after heart surgery?
No. I didn’t know that. I guess it was because I was so in and out. I had what is called a full sternotomy where they cut you–sometimes you can have a partial, so you end up with a smaller scar. They don’t cut all of your ribs open. Mine. They did it all. They laid me out on the table apparently, and my heart was stopped for about eight hours. The whole surgery eight hours. But there was a complication.
So they went in to fix the hole and they ended up finding I also had a leaky valve in the right side of my heart. Cuz it’s been 29 years, so the right side of my heart is enlarged because of all that time. So they had to do some extra things. They have to wake you up after within 24 hours to make sure you’re okay. I don’t recall that at all. The first time I recall being up was that moment where she was stepping on something and I could see my mom. But my mom told me, ‘They woke you up to make sure but I couldn’t see you and you couldn’t see me. You were out of it.’ So from what I hear normal is within 24 hours.
NSNC: So your family didn’t want you to have the surgery? What did they want you to do?
You know what? I’m going to talk about this. We were having a family reunion the weekend of my surgery. Do you know they told me to wait until after the reunion?
NSNC: Nuh uh!
‘We planned this. And there’s food.’ I was like ‘Nope. Unh uhh. I don’t care what it is.’ I need this now. I felt like if I sat in it and overthought it, I would scare myself really bad and may delay it and get worse. I just thought I have to put this cape on for everybody and make this decision for me and for them and I have to do it right now. Plus my baby, in September he was going to start a preschool. I wanted to be there for that.
NSNC: You said you had a sense that something was wrong with your heart. What made you know that something was wrong with your heart?
Yes. I worked in HR for years. I didn’t have to do anything strenuous is my point. It wasn’t like I dug ditches or lifted bricks or anything, right? I’m sitting at my desk one day and literally I’m sitting there normal and my heart starts beating so hard. I leaned up against my desk and I’m rocking back and forth. This is not normal. It was just out of the blue, I don’t know where it came from, sitting there, I had been sitting here for like 30, 40 minutes and had been a while. I wasn’t eating, wasn’t drinking, nothing I was just sitting there. I remember leaning against the desk, like what is happening to me, and I was rocking back and forth off of the desk. That happened a couple of times before. I was like, okay, something’s really not right.
And also for years my ex-husband, their father, was a pretty good athlete, very much into sports and physical fitness and so we would try to walk around the block or even just me literally walking up one flight of stairs. He was so mean to me. He didn’t realize. He was like, ‘Man, you so lazy. What is wrong with you?’ I would go up one flight and I feel like I ran a marathon. So I’d bend over, put my hands on my knees and breathe. And he was like, ‘This is ridiculous. You’re too young for this. You’re just so unhealthy.’ Not knowing.
And then I went to a grocery store with my two-year-old and I was big and pregnant and I passed out. I don’t remember what happened or why, but I passed out and that was the moment I said, ‘I need to see my doctor.’ Because when I came to, I’m on the ground. And I’m pregnant, so I could have fallen on my stomach or anything. And then there’s my baby and imagine if some pervert or some person took my child. So my first appointment with the medical assistant was that week. And I told them all of that and they still dismissed me. I was like, ‘Is it normal to pass out?’ I never passed out with my first child.
Strategies for Black Women for Better Pregnancy Experience
NSNC: What are some tools or strategies Black women can use to make sure they have a better childbirthing experience, if possible?
There are three things that come to my mind instantly. The first one is to take care of yourself, anyway. Take care of yourself, whether you’re trying to get pregnant or not because I can tell you with every child I was never trying to get pregnant. It just was time, I guess. Overall, take care of yourself so that you know your body, you know when something just doesn’t feel right for you. Because for me, normal was having that hole in my heart.
So everybody else around me was walking around with normal hearts and I didn’t know mine was abnormal because that was what it was for me, skipping beats from time to time. That was normal for me, but I had enough forethought to know that something does not feel right and I just happen to know it’s my heart. Something ain’t right. So take care of yourself and listen to that inner voice.
And along with that, be an advocate for yourself. Just like you would be for your child. You have to speak for them, speak for yourself. So that kind of goes together.
The second thing I would say is vet out your physician. Interview them. Go to a different one if you get a bad feeling or you don’t get a good sense, or you don’t like how your physician is treating you or his/her medical team, go to a different one. With my third child, I didn’t get a physician and have my OB until I was five months pregnant. And that’s not “normal.” Most people find out they’re pregnant and they stick with that OB who tells them ‘It’s confirmed you’re pregnant’ with a blood test until the end. See if your experience with them feels right.
The third thing is kind of blend of the first two. Be aware and don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. If someone makes you feel like you’re wrong for speaking up for yourself, listen to that. I mean we are smart women. Black women are overall smart, educated women, no matter what the formal education maybe, you know when something’s not right. We’re so used to taking care of everybody else. Take care of yourself. Don’t let someone dismiss you. No matter your socioeconomic status or whatever. Don’t let people dismiss you. If you know something is wrong, it’s wrong.
Choosing the Right Physicians – Black Doctors or Not
NSNC: I love what you said about making sure you find the right physician because I think we don’t really take it as seriously as it should be. This is a person who’s going to usher your child into the world, you know, so it should be the right person. It should be somebody you feel comfortable with, at least.
It definitely should be. And I know now there are midwives, doctors, and you can have your pick. I want it natural. I want this, I want that. Do whatever works for you. I don’t think you should be fearful, but I do very much believe that people have this stereotype that Black women just pop out babies, we just get back up and we’re good. And we just go on. I think we’re the only culture that has the stereotype stuck to it.
That’s not true! That’s not how it works. Sometimes labor in pregnancy and birth is rough and sometimes for some people, Black, White, green, and yellow, it’s easy. I think that certainly there should be advocates for all women, but we’re talking about Black women. I’ll be straight up. There’s nobody advocating for us but us. Off of our backs, Civil Rights and things of that nature that all the other movements come off. Gay rights, LGBTQ, all of that stems off of Civil Rights and Black people’s back.
But for whatever reason, there’s a stereotype that ‘Oh yes, Black people feel less pain. Black women, they have babies all the time.’ And I’m like, no. This was my first and second child, I had no clue. So I think it’s important to keep our voices and I hate that I have to say it was two Black women who were my first physicians and this happened. But it does happen. While other Black women may be very compassionate and advocate for you. Because all three of my physicians were Black women. So I can’t even say, ‘Oh go to a Black doctor and you’ll be okay.’ You never know. Just pick the doctor that’s right for you. I wouldn’t say have fear and don’t have children, you just do what’s best for you.
NSNC: A lot of Black women, we do have fertility issues and we do have difficult childbirths and a lot of Black women don’t talk about it. People just think, oh, when you decide to have a baby, you get pregnant and that’s it. And Black women are finding out this is not always the case. So we really do have to tell the truth about our experiences because people are going into this thing uninformed. I think people have to have the information so we can know to advocate for ourselves,
It’s taken for granted. Babies really are miracles. When you go through childbirth from what I’ve been told and what I’ve read for years, that’s the closest you come to death. You come close to death to bring life into the world. People have got to take that more seriously. It’s life, take it seriously. Have fun and be happy but take it more seriously than that.
What I didn’t mention. You just brought me back to it. Sometimes I forget it. I got to really be sitting in my feelings to remember this. My second child was a twin. I was pregnant with twins but I lost one. I remember, at first, I tried a different doctor but I ended up going back to the same practice. I was bleeding and I never bled with the first. I tried to get an appointment. They wouldn’t see me until the third day. By then, they said, ‘We’re sorry, we don’t see the two sacks anymore.’ I was like, ‘Wait. What?!’
NSNC: Oh my God.
It happens all the time. And it’s just dismissed. They just went right on, ‘Well this other baby…’ And I’m like ‘Wait, wait.’ I’ve never experienced this, What am I feeling here? I don’t feel good. This makes me feel sad.’ And then they send you home. You’ve driven to this appointment, more than likely you’re by yourself. And then I told my husband and he’s looking at me like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what just happened. They kind of shoved me through the line, I left and now I’m sitting here with you and I don’t know how I feel about this.’
NSNC: When you think about even like the history of gynecology and how they did so many tests and experiments on enslaved Black women, the whole field is built off the presumption that Black women don’t feel pain.
At least that’s what they think. I’m sure those women felt pain.
You just, put this face on. And the fact is, depending on the circumstances some of them thought this was normal, or ‘I can’t speak up. I’ll get killed’ or whatever. You have to advocate and be fearful of no one! No woman, no man. And speak up for yourself. I’m very much into that! If it’s time to go, it’s my time to go. But at least I’ma go out saying what I need to say and being true to myself.
Life After Open-Heart Surgery
NSNC: I did want to ask you, after you had the surgery, how did your life change or improve?
On a very personal…well personal/professional. I got divorced after. It’s that cliche. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. That didn’t happen. But that part about near-death experiences making you wake up and say ‘What am I doing?’ And you take inventory and stock of your life and you make changes. I made such a drastic change, I ended up getting divorced. Great guy. Just not a great husband for me. He’s a phenomenal father and great man but he ain’t the one for me.
I have told myself, that [the days of the heart surgery] is my second birthday now. That’s how I consider it. You’ve got one life and you never know when it’s going to be over. And you hear that all the time. But when stuff like that happens to you, it becomes very, very real. So I love on my babies. I feel like they’re all miracles. I love on them very much, as much as I can. Watching them grow up, I’m thankful for it.
And I try to be positive and happy as possible. Sometimes that’s not what you see but for the most part, I can say I’m a much more positive person than I was before. I was always a naturally skinny person and I would complain, ‘My legs are too skinny.’ Now, I’m like thank God I have legs. Thank God I have arms. I am proud of this, whatever I’ve got, I’m going to use it and be happy with it. So that became very real for me.
I changed my career. My Instagram is the Brow Place. It’s just something I had a passion for. And I know that’s very random. But I said, ‘I like people’s eyebrows and I like to do them.’ So I switched gears from HR to that. So that’s about it. When I get upset now–it’s been five years—but I instantly think, ‘Really, this is what you’re going to get upset about? It’s not that serious.’ And I try to teach my sons that.
My oldest is the most aware of what happened to me. He knows that the scar is there. They all do. The baby is just now looking at the scar like ‘What is that?’ My oldest is very protective of me. If someone is looking and he can tell, he is upset, ‘Why are you staring at my mom?’ And he’s very aware. If I say, ‘Oh Eli you’re breaking my heart,’ he doesn’t like that. He’s like, ‘Wait, what?’ I have to be careful how I talk to him.
I just cherish life. I really do. With the time I have, I want to be impactful, however small it may be. So I hope this helps somebody. If it helps one person, I’d feel so honored that it could happen from my story.
Veronica Wells-Puoane is the creator of the websiteNoSugarNoCreamMag. She is the author of“Bettah Days” andYou’ll Be All Write, a question and answer journal for Black women. She is also the culture editor atMadameNoire.com.
Find more of her articles by Veronica on Curlynikki.com,HERE!