At least I was white and middle class. If a woman is poor or black, she is even less likely to be taken seriously.
In my mid-thirties, I entered one of Boston’s top teaching hospitals to give birth and was assigned an African-American roommate. I was two weeks overdue, and even though I insisted I had finally gone into labor on my own, my OB shot me full of Pitocin, a drug that induces childbirth. All day, I kept trying to convince the staff I was experiencing nonstop contractions, without a moment’s rest in between. But the monitor I was hooked up to wasn’t registering any contractions, so they kept administering more Pitocin. By evening, I would have welcomed dying. But the doctor told my husband to take me home and bring me back the next day to try again.
No, I said. I’m not leaving. And if they didn’t do something to make me feel better soon, I was going to jump out the window.
By now, there was a new OB on call, and she reluctantly agreed to examine my cervix. “Oh, my goodness!” she said. “You are very widely dilated! Have you been having any contractions?”
Yes, I said. All day. At which point, someone figured out the monitor wasn’t working and finally administered an epidural.
In the days that followed, as I recovered from an emergency C-section, I discovered that the condescension with which the staff treated me was nothing compared to how they treated my African-American roommate.
Unlike me, Coreen refused to allow anyone to take her infant to the nursery. At first, this seemed unreasonable. How could she not trust the nurses? But the more I overheard, the more I understood.
The baby, who had curly auburn hair and lustrous coppery-brown skin, wore a frilly pink dress. “She’s beautiful,” I said.
“Huh,” Coreen said, “that ain’t no girl. He’s a boy.” The doctors had taken a sonogram and told her the fetus was female, so she had gone out and bought dresses. Worse, she and the baby’s father had picked out a girl’s name, and since the father was a long-distance trucker and didn’t yet know about the delivery, Coreen hadn’t been able to consult him to pick out a new name. All this made perfect sense. And yet, whenever the nurses asked my roommate why her son was wearing a dress or why she hadn’t named him, I could hear their derision, as if only an ignorant black woman would buy her child clothes for the wrong gender and be too lazy to pick out a name.
One nurse hovered so obsessively while I was trying to breastfeed that I demanded she leave, but she couldn’t be bothered to tend to my roommate. Years before, Coreen had given birth to twin boys, returning home — and to work — without the slightest trouble. Now, despite having given birth naturally to a smaller-than-average child, she was in terrible pain “down there.” But no matter what Coreen said, the nurse ignored her.
Then, in the middle of the night, I heard my roommate cry out: “Help me. Lord, help me. I’m freezing. I’m dying.”
I wobbled out of bed and pushed aside the curtain, only to find Coreen shaking so violently the bed creaked beneath her. I covered her with her blanket, then rang for the nurse. Coreen was very sick, I said.
The nurse led me back behind the curtain and said in a voice my roommate could hear that she was just being melodramatic. Her symptoms were due to her refusal to breastfeed, a decision the nurse attributed to black people being unable to resist the formula the state provided for free. Having overheard Coreen on the phone, I knew she was drying up her milk because she needed to get back to work. I told the nurse if she didn’t get a doctor, I would get one myself. Finally, a physician appeared, examined Coreen, and offhandedly explained that she was suffering from endometritis — an infection women used to die from before antibiotics.
Later, an intern came to put in an intravenous line.
“The needle,” Coreen said. “It ain’t in right. You missed my vein.”
The intern assured her everything was fine. But the next day, the frazzled OB who ran the clinic in Roxbury where my roommate had received her prenatal care stopped by to check on her. “What’s this?” she said. Apparently, the IV line hadn’t been inserted correctly and the fluid had been draining into everything but Coreen’s vein.
After that, I was sure the staff would change their attitude. But when Coreen tried to convince the pediatrician her son’s bowel movements were “the wrong color,” he brushed aside her concerns. Late that night, she rang for the nurse, yelling that “no baby’s shit” was supposed to be red. This time, the nurse ran out and returned with another pediatrician, who told Coreen her son might have an infection in his bowel and that they were rushing him to Children’s Hospital, down the street.