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Allyson Felix testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday, not as an athlete, but as a mother and advocate for overcoming racial disparities in the nation’s maternal health and mortality crisis.
The six-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter and 11-time world champion appeared before the House Ways & Means Committee to share the story of the birth of her daughter, Camryn, on November 28, 2018. When Felix, 33, went for a routine 32-week checkup, the doctor detected an irregularity in the baby’s heartbeat and sent her to the hospital. Not long after she arrived, Felix learned she had a severe case of preeclampsia, a complication detected by high blood pressure and swelling, which could be fatal.
An emergency C-section followed and Felix said her life was at risk—as well as her infant’s.
“Mothers don’t die from childbirth, right? Not in 2019. Not professional athletes. Not at one of the best hospitals in the country,” said Felix. “I thought maternal health was solely about fitness, resources, and care. If that was true, why was this happening to me? I was doing everything right.”
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 16, 2019
While Felix and her husband, Kenneth Ferguson, spent the next month in the NICU with their daughter, they learned that the experience is not uncommon.
“There were others just like me. Black like me. Healthy like me, doing their best, just like me,” she said. “And they faced death like me, too…I learned that black women are nearly four times more likely to die from childbirth than white mothers are in the United States and that we suffer severe complications twice as often.”
Felix said that all the ways that she prepared for pregnancy and childbirth did not take into account the different risks that black women face.
“We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies,” she said. “There’s a level of racial bias within our healthcare system that is troubling and will be difficult to tackle, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t.”
.@allysonfelix is a six-time gold medalist, a mom to baby Camryn, and an activist in the fight against rising maternal mortality rates in America. This morning, she’s testifying and telling her story. Here’s a first look: pic.twitter.com/WuX3Rt59HQ
— Ways & Means Committee (@WaysMeansCmte) May 16, 2019
Research shows that healthcare providers spend less time with black mothers, underestimate the pain of black patients, and dismiss complaints, she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data collected on maternal health and pregnancy mortality between 2011–2015 and 2013–2017 confirmed that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women were three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women. The research also found that most deaths, regardless of race, were preventable.
“I have decided to further lend my voice to organizations that have taken up this work,” Felix said. “I hope…to be intimately involved in this work and fight to make a difference.”
Felix has also said she plans to continue competing with the goal of making the 2020 Olympics, which would be her fifth Games.