Olympic champion Allyson Felix tells Congress about the black maternal health crisis
The sprinter, a six-time gold medalist, breaks from training to tell legislators about her emergency C-section and the need for public health reform
3:05 PMWASHINGTON, D.C. — Sprinter Allyson Felix, 33, a nine-time Olympic medalist who gave birth to a daughter in November, took a break from training for the 2020 Tokyo Games to testify before Congress on Thursday.
“I would like to share the story of the two most terrifying days of my life,” Felix told a crowded House Ways and Means Committee hearing on racial disparities in maternal health and mortality. She was part of a panel of doctors and health policy experts sounding the alarm.
Introducing herself as “Camryn’s mom,” Felix said, “At the time, I did not realize just how many other women just like me were experiencing those same fears and much worse. My hope is that by sharing my experience with you it will continue a conversation that needs much more attention and support.”
Felix detailed how 32 weeks into what had been a routine pregnancy, she noticed swelling in her feet but didn’t think much of it. At her regular checkup a week later, the doctor told Felix she needed to go to the hospital immediately.
“I felt alone because I thought I must have done something wrong, this must have been my fault. I felt like I was one of a very few women that something so unpredictable was happening to,” Felix said.
At first, it was hard to fathom the news that both she and her baby were at risk and she’d have to be on bed rest for eight weeks. “Mothers don’t die from childbirth, right? Not in 2019, not professional athletes, not at one of the best hospitals in the country, and certainly not to women who have a birthing plan and a birthing suite lined up. I thought maternal health was solely about fitness, resources and care. If that was true, then why was this happening to me?” Felix told the committee.
Quickly, it became clear that she had severe preeclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure and potential damage to organ systems, and she had to have an emergency cesarean section. Camryn spent the next month in the neonatal intensive care unit.
That gave Felix time to begin educating herself on the country’s national maternity health crisis, characterized by more than 700 women, more than any other developed nation, dying from complications due to pregnancy each year — 60% of which are avoidable. The crisis has been particularly devastating to African American and Native American mothers.
“I learned that my story was not so uncommon,” Felix said. There were others “just like me. Black like me, healthy like me, doing their best — just like me. They faced death like me, too, and as I started to talk to more of those women and hear about their experiences, I learned that black women are upwards of three times more likely to die from childbirth than white mothers are in the United States and that we suffer severe complications twice as often.”
The increased risk applies to black women regardless of income, education or geography. Serena Williams almost died during an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in 2017. So did Felix’s friend Andrea McBride, half of the first African American sister duo to found a wine company.
“These are just a couple of names of women who are just like me, even though we may have entirely different backgrounds and lives. Some have more access to resources than others. Some are more healthy than others, but each of us have faced losing our lives and the lives of our unborn children,” Felix said.
Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., talked about Kyira Dixon Johnson, the daughter-in-law of TV judge Glenda Hatchett, “a momma who raced cars, flew planes and spoke five languages, still died soon after giving birth to her second son, Langston.”
Felix said she hadn’t known she was at risk and was still struggling to understand her experience. She and the medical professionals testifying on her panel talked about racism and sexism in health care access and delivery. They talked about environmental conditions and disparities that affect black women’s health and quality of life. And they talked about unconscious bias that can cause health care providers to ignore warning signs with black women until it’s too late.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who is expecting any day, noted that cardiovascular disease, obstetric hemorrhage and hypertension are contributing causes to maternal mortality but called data on the subject “woefully inadequate.” She’d championed a bill signed by President Donald Trump in December that called for state committees to investigate each instance of pregnancy-related death and make recommendations.
Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania professor who teaches law, sociology and African studies and specializes in maternal mortality, noted that black women are routinely disbelieved about and undertreated for their physical pain — and blamed when things go wrong.
Although Felix, who will be competing in the 400 meters at the National Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in July, is training full time, she told Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., that it was important for her to be at the hearing.
“I get to do what I’m passionate about. That brings me joy. But there’s no greater issue than what we’re talking about today,” she said. When she was expecting, she read books on pregnancy. “I was not aware I was completely not educated on this topic. I wasn’t happy to go through what I went through, but I was thankful to come out and learn so much.”
The six-time Olympic gold medalist urged African American mothers not to be intimidated, to speak up if something doesn’t feel right and to advocate on their own behalf. It’s something she says she will also be doing while training for the next national, world and Olympic competitions.
“I have a platform,” Felix said, “and I’m going to use my voice.”