By LISA EISENHAUER
The grim experiences depicted in the movie Toxic: A Black Woman's Story hit close to home for Kimberly King Webb, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for CHRISTUS Health.
Crystle Paynther, who plays Nina, weeps in a scene from the short film Toxic: A Black Woman's Story. The movie explores the intersection of racism, toxic stress and birth outcomes. It was screened during a CHA webinar in April.
Photo courtesy of "TOXIC: A Black Woman's Story"
Webb was part of a three-person panel who led a discussion of the 26-minute film after it was shown by CHA during a webinar on April 30. The movie focuses on a day in the life of a Black professional named Nina as she navigates various stressors and their effects on her pregnancy and her family. It was produced by First Year Cleveland, a community group affiliated with Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine that is dedicated to reversing the high infant death rate in the city and surrounding county.
Nina's character is, like Webb, an attorney with a supportive family who is part of a high socioeconomic bracket. Nevertheless, she is not shielded from dismissive health care providers or race-related realities, such as the fear that being pulled over by police will escalate beyond a traffic stop, unequal treatment of her son because he wears dreadlocks and the stereotyping of people of color as dependent on public assistance.
After the film's screening, Webb discussed her experiences before and after she gave birth to her first child last year. She shared how during a childbirth class the instructor asked all 11 participants what their fears were. The other 10 women said they worried about how painful the process was going to be. "I, being the only African American woman in the room, said, 'I'm afraid of dying' and you could probably hear a pin drop," she recalled.
"I know and I knew then that African American mothers are three to four times more likely to die in pregnancy of childbirth-related causes and that Black babies die during the first year of life at twice the rate of white babies."
Delivery, then misery
Webb gave birth to a healthy baby boy in spring 2020, but days later she was enduring a lot of pain. She called her doctor's office and spoke to a nurse coordinator there several times who told her to "bear with it" because pain was normal in the aftermath of childbirth.
When the pain didn't ease, she went to an emergency room and was admitted to the hospital with postpartum preeclampsia. "The ER doctor said, 'If you'd waited another day this would have been a much different outcome,'" Webb said.
Webb's experiences were at a hospital that is not part of the CHRISTUS system. She lives in Dallas, where there are no CHRISTUS facilities nearby. But she noted by email after the webinar that what happened to her could have happened anywhere and that her experiences offer an example of the importance of care providers working toward health equity.
Getting extended care
Kathy Curran, senior director of public policy for CHA, and Dennis Gonzales, senior director of mission innovation and integration for CHA, joined Webb on the panel.
Curran said that while studies show that Black women face worse pregnancy outcomes than whites regardless of their socioeconomic status, lower-income women in general face greater challenges in getting quality medical care. She noted that the most recent economic stimulus package passed by Congress has a provision that allows states to extend Medicaid coverage to mothers up to a year postpartum. She encouraged health care providers to urge their states to take advantage of that program.
"It's really moving and important for us to understand that this just doesn't happen in movies or in the newspaper," Curran said of the challenges that expectant and new mothers face. "This is affecting the lives of people we live with, we work with and we know in the ministry."
Gonzales described the ministry's We Are Called initiative. The campaign, led by CHA and supported by its member Catholic health systems, has a goal of ending health disparities and systemic racism.
Twenty-three of the nation's largest Catholic health care systems already have committed to the Comforting Racism by Achieving Health Equity pledge that is part of the initiative. Gonzales noted that Webb's system, CHRISTUS, was the first to sign the campaign's pledge.
The four-part pledge calls for working for COVID-19 health equity, examining all aspects of CHA member organizations, building right and just relationships with communities, and advocating for polices to end health disparities and systemic racism.
Webb said she was proud to see her system commit to the pledge. "It's about how do we create an environment that's more inclusive and understanding," she said. "I think that's one of the key things that we can do."
A link to a recording of the panel discussion of "Toxic" is available to CHA members at chausa.org/cha-we-are-called/resources.
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