SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Imani Byers says she’s seen firsthand the difference in medical treatment and care received by her Black and white pregnant clients.
“My Black clients often get hit with the, ‘well, let’s do a cesarean [section] because of X, Y and Z,’ whereas my white clients that I’ve worked with are given the patience, the time and things like that, and their voices are actually really heard,” the Atlanta-based doula told WSAV NOW.
The awareness week helps shed light on experiences, like those endured by Byers’ clients and other Black mothers impacted by disparities in the health care system.
“This week is important because Black women are dying,” said Byers, who founded her company, Rebyrth Wellness, in January 2020.
The Savannah native provides doula services to women in the Atlanta area and Coastal Empire.
Along with American Indian and Alaska Native women, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Georgia was recently ranked the number-one worst state to give birth in the country, and so if that’s the case for white women, that risk now is double or even triple for Black women here in this state,” Byers said.
“That’s heartbreaking and devastating because it causes people to have fears surrounding the experiences that may go through, because systemic racism is real, and it is alive and well,” she added.
Byers points to a “severe lack of education surrounding mental health” for Black women in birthing spaces as part of the issue.
“The way that our white counterparts may be checked in on is not the same way that we will be checked in on, and actually, in some instances, Child Protective Services will be called on a person of color or Black woman for something that may have been allowed or let slip for someone of another race,” Byers explained.
“Our health matters, too, when it comes to giving birth,” she said. “There’s no reason that we should be dying at the rate that we die, especially when the evidence shows that these deaths were preventable.”
It’s also been shown that the medical concerns of Black women are more likely to be disregarded or not taken as seriously by physicians — a reality highlighted by professional tennis player Serena Williams when detailing her pregnancy complications.
Byers says some clients have even been told to “be quiet” for expressing pain too loudly.
“They’re in pain, they should be able to make some type of sound or noise,” Byers said.
“The number-one thing that we know as birth workers, as people who are in this fight for reproductive justice, as we like to call it, we know that the pain that we experience as Black people has always been subdued, if you will,” she said.
After earning her dual master’s degree in public health and social work from the University of Georgia, she shifted her focus from gerontology to explore how she could address health disparities impacting women of color.
Byers, whose great grandmother worked as a labor and delivery nurse at Savannah’s former Charity Hospital, says it’s what led her to become a doula.
Doulas are trained professionals who offer emotional, informational and physical support to mothers and their partners throughout pregnancy and after childbirth.
“We help teach you how to cope through different stages of labor, we teach you about the different transitions that you can expect when going from early to active to after giving birth, and we’re also that person that’s going to be pushing you, coaching you and guiding you through the birth journey and experience,” Byers said.
Studies have shown that enlisting the help of doulas has led to a decrease in the number of cesarean surgeries and an increase in breastfeeding rates.
“We also talk to you about ways you can advocate for yourself in the birth space, should you choose to do a home birth or at a birth center or hospital,” Byers said.
The passionate doula became emotional when sharing why her career is so rewarding.
“Giving birth is such a sacred space, so to be able to be invited into that space with people who are just literally wanting to survive, that’s what gives me the greatest amount of joy,” Byers said.
“I get no better joy than seeing my clients be like, ‘I did it,’ or, ‘they’re here, we did this,’” she said.