Shanaye A. Jeffers, MD
I am a young black woman from an urban community and because of this, my role as an Ob-Gyn feels critical right now. Somehow, it’s 2019 and marginalization remains the backbone of this country’s political system. And to be honest, I don’t see an end in our foreseeable future. Yet, I recognize that during this time more than ever my responsibility as a clinical provider, surgeon, advocate, group leader — my voice & my will — is crucial. Or at least I can convince myself that sometimes. Regardless, there is something about my Brooklyn roots and the grit of Ob-Gyn residency mixed with the administration’s pure disrespect for womanhood that has activated me in such a way that at this point, there’s just no going back.
When my good friend & co-resident asked me to write this piece, I immediately went to the website to do my research. I found myself studying and reciting the Issues in Action. Specifically, “all women have the right to equal access to affordable, quality healthcare and the freedom to make decisions regarding their bodies” and “all women have the right to feel represented by those in leadership positions and supported in holding those positions themselves”. I was alone but I spoke those words aloud repeatedly, not just because they were poignant, but because I couldn’t believe such straightforward and simple standards of life were still up for debate. And in the wake of Black Maternal Healthcare Week, the conversations around advancing health equity are particularly pertinent.
So here I am, a young black female doctor — a proud Ob-Gyn — and I’m ready to act on these issues.
Over the last several years, there’s been a lot of publicity around the increased risk of poor maternal-fetal outcomes in Black women. Between NY Times articles & discussions on NPR, coupled with Serena Williams & Beyonce sharing their stories on their difficult labor experiences, the world has become painfully aware of the fact that no matter what and for whatever reason, black women will do worse than any other race with respect to health outcomes. Before I actually became a doctor, I was so focused on the why. I knew about the medical history of secrecy, coercion, and manipulation of the black female body; that permanent sterilization without consent and practicing surgical procedures on awake enslaved women without anesthesia was customary. I knew that there was data to support that complaints of pain from black women in the hospital go ignored or met with assumptions that she is narcotic seeking and I also know that overall black women objectively feel that they are getting inferior care. But still, what could I do to help shift the narrative? How could I help to address the important issue in action of the “right to equal access to affordable, quality healthcare and the freedom to make decisions regarding their bodies”?
Now that I am halfway through residency, all I can do is use my passion and training to push toward a positive change for the future. I had to do a lot of digging to determine what that change was and how exactly I could contribute to it. I realized that true freedom to make decisions regarding a woman’s own body requires education and awareness in order to make an informed decision. With sex-ed being practically non-existent in the current education system, in conjunction with the current political ship actively turning in the opposite direction, providing this necessary education is more important than ever — especially for Black women. Black women have been left behind with respect to health equity and autonomy, and I can tell by my interactions with my Black patients of all ages that there is a real demand for empowerment through information. I decided that I would be liaison and that role illuminated itself by way of a non-profit that I’ve become dedicated to called Daughters of the Diaspora (DoD).
DoD is an organization created by a Black female Ob-Gyn, Joy Cooper, led by Black medical students and is geared toward teaching sexual & reproductive health and promoting self-esteem & goal orientation to adolescent black females in the community. DoD is meant to provide access to important information in an informal setting, and we recognize that representation and trust is special here. Representation is an important tool for education and awareness, as there is data to support that minorities feel and do better if a person with similar demographics is a part of their education/care team/support system. With black females being one of the severely underrepresented groups in medicine, taking the time out to lead these discussions about birth control, consent, and the menstrual cycle to these girls allows them to not only learn the information but to see that we — young black female physicians- do actually exist. And after all, all women have the right to feel represented by those in leadership positions and supported in holding those positions themselves”. There is so much misinformation being disseminated and stigma around a woman’s right to her own body that it’s hard to figure out where the truth lies and who to trust. As an Ob-Gyn and Philadelphia Site Director of DoD, my job is to win back the trust of a disenfranchised and often misunderstood group of women through education and empowerment. I am grateful for this privilege and know that as a united front, we powerful and motivated women can turn this ship back in the right direction so that we all get the care and support we deserve.
Dr. Jeffers is is a rising third year Ob-Gyn resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and is the Philadelphia Site Director of Daughters of the Diaspora, Inc.