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The Sad Truth About the Pregnant Patient Experience (And What We Can Do About It)

A woman’s reality can change in the blink of an eye in the delivery room. And every moment in each trimester leading up to it for that matter. Why?

Because no matter how many books you read, or how many experts you have by your side, pregnancy is unpredictable. One day you feel like a million bucks, and the next you question if what’s growing inside you is really worth it. (It is! I have two.) But when things do start to feel off, it’s up to you to advocate for yourself and fight for the care you deserve. Because sadly, there’s a high chance that you will be told everything is “normal,” when your body knows it’s not. The burden of self-care and self-observation needed may also be completely unrealistic given everything else you have going on in your life. And sometimes you won’t really know what’s wrong because “strange feelings” in pregnancy are pretty much the status quo.

If you’ve ever been pregnant and empathize with what I just said, I see you. And if you’ve never been pregnant, but want to have kids someday, I hope that by sharing my story, I don’t impart fear, but instead help raise awareness around the very serious health disparities pregnant people are facing in the United States. Because something has to be done about it.

My Story

During my first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The levels were not very worrisome, but it did become a big part of my pregnancy. When you have gestational diabetes you think it’s your fault, you need to constantly monitor and keep a report card of your glucose stats, and it becomes an endless shame cycle. Even though this pregnancy complication is certainly manageable, over time, it started to really impact my joy and my pregnancy felt persistently scarier and tenuous. I continued to be reminded that my body’s purpose at this moment was to be a safe home for this unborn child, and I was constantly failing at keeping it safe. If I were to miss a data point or express my own feelings about how I was coping as Lauren in my pregnancy, I was almost always met with scare tactics from my doctors with the rigidity of a bullish coach telling me to buck up or else. Or else…you will kill your baby.

To be perfectly clear, I appreciate knowing and understanding all of the risks involved, but why was my well-being always to take a backseat and be made to be so much smaller? The entire process felt very antiquated, inflexible, and impersonal… I experienced visit after visit with my doctor where I was reminded to suppress, ignore, and stop whining. I never once left feeling grateful for my body and the magic that was happening within me, excited for the future and the growth of my family, just dread and dismissal. Eventually, my husband and I decided to change care providers at 38 weeks after the response we got when we refused an unnecessary ultrasound… “Clearly, this is about money and not the safety of your baby.” At the time we were on student healthcare and out of pocket the 4 extra ultrasounds I had cost me more than $2000. That was it. Tired of being uncared for, we moved to a different hospital and team of doctors. With what I thought was the hard part behind me, we delivered our first baby girl after induction and two days of labor. My 12-pound baby (a concern for gestational diabetes) did not get stuck in my body on her way out, instead, she came in at about 6.5 lbs. From this point we had only two more “manageable” complications, my placenta refused to leave my uterus. I bled and cried out from the pain for nearly 45 minutes until it was finally manually shredded from my body. A lot of blood was lost, but I was not. Next, we had a few days in the NICU for our very jaundiced newborn. But ultimately we came out healthy and lucky. My story is not unique, but also not trauma-free. Many, many women are united in our stories of birth trauma, but I don’t think any of us internalize how dangerous childbirth is, nor how close the outcome is to be different.

Fast forward to 2021, I had a similar experience with baby number two. The same distrust, but this time the reality in the delivery room was much scarier.

My husband was beginning to panic. The baby’s heart rate was dropping at an alarming rate, but between the nurse listening to an audiobook (unfortunately, no, that’s not an embellishment for this story) and the less experienced and unsupervised resident in the room, the situation was deathly serious. With each contraction, the baby’s heart rate would drop more. My husband, who happens to be a physician, began prepping for a C-section which didn’t happen. Finally, I delivered, but the baby came out blue, and as for me… Again, I bled and bled when my placenta didn’t detach. The amount of blood I lost was terrifying. I started to go dizzy, had chills, lost vision, and was shaking so uncontrollably that I asked for the baby on my chest to be removed for fear I couldn’t hang on to her. And here’s the thing, I know that there are things we cannot avoid. Medical emergencies happen. But what’s most traumatizing to me about my experience as a pregnant patient, was the lack of awareness, education, and true care I received. Me. The mother. The “maternal” in Maternal Care. And I know I’m not the only person who has experienced poor maternal healthcare. Far from it.

When it comes to pregnancy, labor, and delivery, modern medicine is not very modern.

Today, there are keychains that can pinpoint our exact location. Cars that run on batteries and heat each passenger’s butt to a different temperature. Robots, AI, and self-driving trucks… and yet by modern medicine standards today, we monitor a nine-and-a-half-month pregnancy with just 13 visits to a doctor — half of which are likely to be virtual thanks to the normalization of telehealth. Think about that. We have the ability to track every fluctuation of our heart rate with a wearable fitness watch, but in all 270 days of gestation, we take 13 snapshots and call that sufficient.

Maybe this is fine, maybe it’s other areas of maternal care that need addressing, or maybe it’s all of the above. Regardless, it’s time we start asking more questions and demanding attention to the poor maternal health care we’re facing. We can’t continue under the advisement that women for centuries have done this. We need innovation, modernization, funding, and support for health systems and providers, all in new and different ways. What I know is that we should see a decrease in the experience of birth trauma, preventable complications, death, and quality of life losses. What I don’t know is how.

From Idea to Impact

In order for change to be made, it has to come from outside of the healthcare system. We need to require and demand more. The technology exists to create a better patient experience for pregnant people, we just need the right people to rally around a solution. In fact, that’s something I am currently embarking on: to create a lasting impact in healthcare, especially for women and girls.

Together, let’s uncover the truth about women’s sexual and reproductive health, from body autonomy to maternal mortality and everything in between, so that we can build a more resilient, patient-centered, sustainable healthcare system. One where more women live.

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