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Cardiovascular issues play large role in Black maternal mortality

Understanding what makes Black mothers more at risk for death has become a focus of many in healthcare.

Black women are three times more likely to die than white women due to pregnancy-related issues.

One of the driving factors is the development of cardiovascular issues.

Cheryl Stokes said she first noticed something was wrong immediately after giving birth to her son in 2005.

“I remember when he was born that I couldn’t really breathe. I thought I was just panicking,” said Stokes.

The Wake Forest mother said over the next few days at home, her breathing got progressively worse.

Stokes said she continued to brush off the warning signs, but eventually a family member urged her to call her doctor.

“I called my doctor and she immediately sent me to the emergency room,” recalled Stokes. “By the time I got there they told me I had congestive heart failure.”

Stokes said she was shocked to hear the news that she had developed postpartum cardiomyopathy.

“I just didn’t expect that. My child, at this point, is four days old and I’m in the emergency room and I’m fighting for my life now,” Stokes said.

She was put on several medications to control her blood pressure. The next year was spent in-and-out of doctor’s visits to manage her heart health.

“It was a very scary ordeal and I feel very fortunate because I had great insurance,” Stokes said.

Stokes said her ability to access care and her doctor’s persistence with making her go to the hospital saved her life.

“I know not everybody has access to good prenatal care. It could’ve gone another way had I not been in the situation I’m in,” said Cheryl. “Not everybody has an African American doctor who’s on the lookout.”

In the 19 years since, Cheryl has made several lifestyle changes to prioritize her cardiovascular health including losing weight, making healthier eating choices and increasing exercise.

“It was a wake up call and it has been a journey,” she expressed.

Dr. Manesh Patel is a cardiologist with Duke Health and a national board member for the American Heart Association.

He said increasing diversity in healthcare and access to care, especially in minority communities, is crucial to reducing maternal mortality rates.

“I think it’s both the clinical team and the physician groups and the medical teams learning to listen and hear things differently and being thoughtful, but I also think it’s raising awareness,” he shared.

Part of the education that’s needed the doctor said is training newer doctors to recognize not everyone with cardiovascular issues will have the same signs.

“I say all the time to our residents and fellows: your body doesn’t read the textbook. A lot of people have different symptoms,” Patel said. “Partially it’s being aware of the risks people carry.”

The doctor explained it’s also important to make sure women are keeping up with regular doctor visits.

“As a developed country, maternal mortality is way too high, so we have to work on these things to better understand how to curb that,” he said.

Patel said new and expecting mothers should try and incorporate plenty of whole fruits and vegetables into their diets.

He also said staying physically active as much as possible, not smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke, getting plenty of sleep and monitoring cholesterol and blood pressure levels can help everyone reduce their risk of developing heart disease.

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