Anushay Hossain didn’t consider that her childbirth might not go well. She certainly didn’t consider she might face death.
After all, she was in the United States, where medicine was advanced and doctors were to be trusted. Compared to her upbringing in Bangledesh, where “the concept of women’s health hardly existed,” she felt safe.
But the writer and feminist policy analyst learned the terrifying way that birthing in the US is not a guarantee for a smooth delivery – in fact, it’s a detriment.
In her upcoming book, “The Pain Gap: How Sexism and Racism in Healthcare Kill Women,” out October 26, Hossain writes about her and other women’s harrowing experiences in America’s healthcare, and particularly obstetric healthcare, system. She calls for women to redefine “hysteria” – the age-old notion that women’s pain is in their heads – and advocate for their health.
“Giving birth in the richest country on earth, I never imagined I could die in labor. But I almost did,” she says. “The experience put me on a journey to explore, understand, and share how women – especially women of color – are dismissed to death by systemic sexism in American healthcare.”
Hossain said her doctor made her ‘prove her pain’
At an unnamed Washington DC area hospital, Hossain spent 30 hours in labor, including three hours pushing. Then, her epidural slipped.
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“My pain was so severe that I ran a fever of 104 degrees, and as I shook and trembled uncontrollably, the doctors
finally performed an emergency C-section,” she writes.
She and her baby survived, but Hossain was traumatized, and developed hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease, which caused her left eye to bulge.
“But what plagues me most is why I stayed so uncharacteristically quiet through it all,” she writes. “Why, when I insisted the painkillers weren’t working and everyone was ignoring me, did I not once raise my voice? Why, after I was in surgery, was I so polite to the doctor who demanded I ‘prove’ my pain by walking to the operating table on my own?
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“Where was my voice – the ‘hysteria’ I had used selectively and to my advantage in the past? Having spent my entire career as a women’s rights advocate, why didn’t I stand up for myself?” she continues.
Childbirth in the US is far riskier for women of color, whose pain is frequently dismissed
Later in her book, Hossain highlights the stories of women, and particularly Black women, who’ve suffered – if not died – from largely preventable childbirth complications in the US, which has the highest maternal-mortality rate of any developed country.
Regardless of education level, insurance, or fame, women of color are severely disproportionately affected.
Research has also found that clinicians tend to treat Black people differently when it comes to assessing and managing their pain. In one 2016 study, about 50% of white medical students and residents surveyed said they held the false belief that Black people experience pain differently than white people, leading to inappropriate treatment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these disparities, Anushay Hossain emphasizes, with Black people more likely to contract the illness that’s proving to be especially dangerous in pregnancy.
“We have to remember and tell these stories of the women behind the statistics,” Hossain says. “Behind every one of these numbers is a real woman with real dreams. Their lives matter. Every woman’s life matters. Every woman’s life counts.”