New Documentary 'Aftershock' looks at Black maternal mortality

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
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Mothers are usually the backbones of their families; therefore, losing one can have a ripple effect that feels more like an aftershock. That's the name and the focus of a documenta

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Mothers are usually the backbones of their families; therefore, losing one can have a ripple effect that feels more like an aftershock. That's the name and the focus of a documentary premiering Tuesday from ABC'S partners at Hulu.

National statistics show Black women are two to five times more likely to die due to pregnancy or childbirth. Two of those tragic losses are featured in "Aftershock."

The statistic has activists demanding solutions, with many local people working toward that same goal.

Asasiya Muhammad is the founder of Inner Circle Midwifery in Germantown. Muhammad, who is a midwife, is among a small group.

Nationally, less than 7% of midwives are Black.

"Most of my life has been covered by my desire to be a humanitarian," said Muhammad of her desire to be a midwife.

Since starting Inner-Circle Midwifery 10 years ago, she's seen a shift in the culture.

"It's become more normalized to have a doula," she said.

That rise in the number of African American women seeking doulas and midwives, who help women during their pregnancy journey, may be due in part to the grim reality of maternal mortality for women of color.

"Aftershock" reflects the stories of two healthy African American women who died as a result of childbirth. The personal and heartbreaking stories are punctuated by the women's families' push for changes to address Black maternal mortality. The issue is also a concern locally.

"In the last five years, we've seen 110 pregnancy-associated deaths in Philadelphia," said Dr. Aasta Mehta, medical officer for women's health at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

"Our numbers are small to begin with, but they're so significant," she said.

Black women make up 73% of pregnancy-related deaths in Philadelphia. It's such a concern that the city formed the "Maternal Mortality Review Committee.

"These are generally healthy people. People that should not be dying," said Mehta.

It's a scenario that was too close to happening for one mother who hired doula Xiomara Gittens to help care for her. Gittens accompanied the mom to the hospital and recalls a comment the mom made in jest.

"She was like Xio, you better not let me die. Like jokingly," she said.

But that joke turned into much more for Gittens as the mother's delivery took a turn for the worse.

"She started seizing. So I ran to the door," said Gittens, adding that she called for nursing staff to come to the room and issue a code. "I'm like, 'This is preeclampsia' ... The only way to cure it is delivering the baby."

The baby girl was delivered safely and the mother fully recovered.

"She's doing good, baby's doing good," said Gittens. "Every time I talk to her, she's like, 'Oh I can't believe that you saved me.'"

Advocacy saved that mom's life. But advocacy is one thing that Black women are less likely to have in the delivery room according to the Giving Voices of Mothers study.

"I don't feel like we get what we need or what we deserve," said Muhammad.

The Giving Voices to Mothers study also found that Black women are twice as likely to have requests for help ignored and to be shouted at or scolded by a healthcare provider.

"Unfortunately, we see things like physicians who ignore pain indications from Black women or women who are told they are simply being hysterical and need to calm down," said Kimberly Mutcherson, co-dean and law professor at Rutgers Law School.

"There's unfortunately still a lot of racism in medicine," she said.

Experts think diversity and advocacy are two keys to solving the problem. Philadelphia's Maternal Mortality Review Committee is implementing recommendations for changes as midwives, and doulas also become part of the solution.

"I want to help others," said Gittens.

She and other doulas and midwives are determined to save lives as they help bring life into the world.

"Really wanting to impact lives at the point at which they come into this world," said Muhammad.