Having her first child was going to be the perfect Christmas present for Gabrielle Dadzie. But she came dangerously close to tragically losing her son during delivery on Boxing Day in 2017.
Scared, confused and in excruciating pain, Gabrielle was eventually forced to undergo an emergency caesarean after her son, Jeremiah, faced the risk of developing a condition known as meconium aspiration syndrome.
The mum went to a London hospital complaining of severe discomfort – while already past her due date – but says her pain wasn’t taken seriously and she spent three long days in agony while being poked and prodded by healthcare professionals who failed to communicate the risks to her or her husband.
It emerged that her baby’s heart rate was declining with each contraction she experienced; were it not for the chance intervention of her relative, who worked at the same hospital and implored colleagues to deliver an emergency caesarean, Gabrielle may have lost her baby.
“I had about 10 different doctors, nurses and midwives, just surrounding me at various points, staring at my vagina; it was very uncomfortable. I didn't know what was happening but I knew something was wrong,” Gabrielle, a journalist, told The Independent.
“No one was telling me anything. They just left me there; it's only by God's grace that my aunty, who worked at that hospital, stepped in. She’d seen me on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and came back on Boxing Day asking ‘why are you still here?’.
“Having checked my notes, she said ‘this is disgraceful; if we don't get this child out very soon, I don’t know what could happen’.”
Meconium aspiration is a dangerous lung infection which babies can suffer if they defecate in the mother’s womb and ingest it; this may occur when labour is particularly traumatic, as Gabrielle experienced. In turn, the baby becomes stressed, leading to premature bowel movements.
Black women have previously revealed the shocking racism they faced in the UK’s healthcare system during pregnancy and childbirth, in landmark research that shed light on the country’s damning death rate for expectant mothers.
Anecdotal accounts of substandard care and discrimination have come to light over several years, from the wrong dosage of medications being administered to jibes being made by healthcare practitioners about their ability to speak English to women being ignored, like Gabrielle, and ultimately placed at risk within hospital settings during pregnancy.
Not only did it leave expectant mothers hurt and humiliated but many reported feeling scared as health concerns went undetected and they were rendered voiceless while facing an increased risk of death during a time when they were most vulnerable.
“I think my ethnicity played a part in how I was treated both during my labour and in terms of aftercare,” Gabrielle, now a mum of two, continued.
“I didn’t feel empowered to speak up and advocate for myself because it’s too easy to be labelled as an ‘angry Black woman’ if I do that or start shouting; I wasn’t angry, I was scared while not knowing why I was in that amount of pain.
“We’re also labelled as ‘strong Black women’ by healthcare professionals of all ethnicities and we’re expected to deal with pain.”
Gabrielle praised the work of the Five X More, an advocacy group set up by two mums, Tinuke Awe and Clotilde Abe. The group helps Black mothers manage pregnancy and advocate for themselves. It also sponsors the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Black maternal health, which aims to raise awareness of the issue of racial disparities within maternal healthcare.
Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, chair of the new APPG which met for the first time this week, said: “Black mothers are still almost four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth.
“Having a dedicated APPG is an important bridge between policymakers and campaigners, which has helped to push this issue up the agenda and has already secured concrete commitments from both the current government and a future Labour government.
“We still have a lot of work to do on this. The colour of a mother’s skin should not negatively impact her health outcomes.”
This comes as a new study by Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK (MBRRACE-UK) recently revealed that the number of women dying during pregnancy or soon after childbirth has reached its highest level in almost 20 years.
After the APPG’s first conference, Ms Awe of Five X More told The Independent: “We believe that addressing the disparities in Black maternal health is not just a matter of importance; it’s an urgent necessity. The existence of an APPG dedicated to this issue is a significant step towards driving change.
“The statistics are stark, and they underscore the urgency of our mission. By fostering collaboration, raising awareness, and actively addressing systemic issues, we aim to create a future where every Black woman can access safe and equitable maternal care.”
A Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust spokesperson said: “We are deeply sorry to hear of Gabrielle’s experience with us in 2017. Though time does not diminish what happened to Gabrielle, we have taken huge strides forward with our maternity services here at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust over the last five years, and have put tackling health inequalities and listening to and learning from our women and birthing people at the heart of our improvement journey.
“For example, in conjunction with our diverse local communities and the Maternity Voices Partnership, we co-designed a set of Cultural Humility Standards which set out six principles for good and safe maternity care for all service users and we actively monitor our women and birthing people’s experience against these standards.
“We work closely with Five X More,” the authority said, adding that it uses the body’s advice materials called Colourful Birth wallets “to empower women and birthing people to speak up and advocate for themselves, and we are also early adopters of a clinical decision-making tool that works to reduce the risk to black women.”