Medical racism? My pregnant doctor prescribed me fetus-harming meds
OPINION: Blue Telusma's harrowing experience with a health-care provider carries a warning for Black folks
Over the summer I wrote an article about a medical scare that rocked my world and made me re-assess the way I approach just about everything.
“During the first week of July 2021, as everyone in Los Angeles was preparing to celebrate their first summer holiday since the lockdown had been lifted, I was hanging out with a new friend, when all of a sudden my left eye began to twitch uncontrollably. At first, I thought it was something random, like allergies. But after three days of eye spasms, I became concerned and went to the doctor to see what was going on.
Twenty minutes into the appointment I was given news that would humble my “I got this!” attitude once and for all. Apparently, I hadn’t been handling the stress of life in a pandemic as well I’d thought, and my stress levels were so high, I was actually dangerously close to having a heart attack.”Excerpt from: ‘Pandemic stress symptoms are real — here’s what you can do’
Finding out that you just barely escaped a stroke is a humbling experience, to say the least, and while in that uber vulnerable headspace I leaned heavily on my doctor to guide me through the process of recovery.
As is usually the case in situations like these, she immediately prescribed me medication to mitigate any further damage. And being the Type A personality that I am, I wholeheartedly planned to follow all of her guidelines by the book.
But then something odd (and a bit metaphysical) happened: the first time I tried to take my pills I had a panic attack.
It took me a full hour to psych myself up to swallow that those small pink and white tablets that were supposed to help regulate my blood pressure while I started making lifestyle changes to bring my stress levels down.
Being an empath (a clairsentient and claircognizant specifically) I’ve learned over the years that my heightened intuition can be both a gift and a curse. But in this instance, I didn’t take my adverse reaction to be anything more than another symptom of me being sick. And so for several days, I force-fed myself these pills and ignored the alarm bells that rang in my head every time I reached for them.
After a week though, I couldn’t take it anymore and had to stop, opting to forego medication to instead focus on diet, exercise, meditation, while avoiding anything (or anyone) who brought unnecessary chaos into my life.
Six weeks later when I went to see my doctor — a white-presenting brunette who was visibly in her third trimester of pregnancy — I was congratulated on my improved numbers.
“I see the meds are working!” she exclaimed. To which I sheepishly responded, “Actually I haven’t been taking them. I’ve just been living a more zen life.”
Sis was visibly annoyed by this admission and scolded me, informing me that if I wanted to get better then they had to see how my body reacted to medication and not just a holistic approach.
I told her I would do better, but to be honest, I didn’t. I kept focusing on lifestyle changes and made “guarding my peace” the mantra for how I handled everything.
By the end of the summer, my doctor, who was now on the verge of having her baby, blocked off her calendar for the rest of the year to go on maternity leave, and I was given two recommendations of who to see in her absence: firstly, a fertility specialist in Beverly Hills to help me check on my egg count and also a cardiologist to make sure that it was only stress that was affecting my health.
The fertility specialist was a request I made because being a woman over 35, I know that heightened stress is something that could lead to complications when I’m ready to have a child, and I wanted to make sure everything was fine in that respect.
The specialist I went to seemed nice enough but overwhelmed me with her game plan, told me that my life would be easier if I had my baby without “the headache” of having a father in the picture, then charged me almost $300 for our 30-minute consultation.
Next up was the cardiologist, a sweet-tempered, very charming Asian man who kept his mask on throughout our entire exchange. Given I had briefly wanted to be a doctor as a kid and entered into a pre-med program, I told him about the summer I worked in the cardiology department at Tufts University, shadowing a doctor just like him for months.
Our banter was warm and relaxed, so imagine my shock when he looked at my chart and casually said, “OK so based on your meds is it safe to assume you don’t want children?”
Immediately the smile dropped from my face and I felt my brow furrowing in confusion.
When I asked him why he’d make such a false assumption, he responded, “Your doctor has you on medication that would almost guarantee complications with a fetus. When you’re on those meds the likelihood of you having a miscarriage or a stillborn birth are very high. One of my biggest fears as a doctor is accidentally prescribing these to any woman who wants kids.”
To say I felt like I had been slapped across the face in that moment would have been an understatement. My doctor, my PREGNANT doctor who was currently on maternity leave, had spent the entire summer pressuring me to take pills that could have literally killed my child had I been pregnant. And made me feel guilty when my intuition told me not to listen to her.
When I told the cardiologist, he suddenly got very serious and said, “If you’d gotten pregnant while on these and had a miscarriage, you would have been able to sue her because it would’ve been completely her fault.”
His admission hung thick in the air as I thought about the tweet I’d posted just the night before about how since around the time I was prescribed those pills I’d started having weird psychic dreams about a baby wanting to be born and speaking to me from the other side.
I don’t know about what spiritual beliefs you hold as you read this, but I can now wholeheartedly say that my unborn child was sent to warn me, and I’m so relieved that I listened.
Within minutes, this new doctor was able to prescribe me new meds that had no fetus-harming side effects. But when I called my male friend later that day to vent, I repeated to him the question that had been playing through my mind all morning, “How could a woman, who knew I wanted a child, and who was pregnant herself, prescribe me poison that could’ve killed MY child? What kind of person does that?”
And he — a father himself — answered, “Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist but white doctors don’t always see us as human. Their negligence kills us all the time.”
And the sad part is the statistics about the mortality rates of Black women — particularly pregnant Black women — back him up.
Also, please believe that having money doesn’t shield us from this.
I went to a fancy concierge doctor in West Hollywood, was seeing specialists in Beverly Hills, and was still given harmful meds. Even the likes of Serena Williams — who is arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time — wrote extensively about having to argue with her doctors to give her a test that she needed when she was pregnant. Later, she found out that had she not done so she might have died.
No matter how successful we are, the place where racism often goes the most unchecked is in the medical community. And that sad reality is largely to blame for the aversion that many in our community have about taking the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s why even though I am personally vaccinated, I don’t ever talk down to those who harbor fears about medical negligence.
If you think the title of this article is jarring, I assure you that living this nightmare has been even more so. Physically, I am doing a detox to flush out the pills I took the morning of my latest doctor’s appointment (out of guilt) before finding out they were harmful. But mentally, I am still incredibly shaken up.
This all just happened yesterday. And normally it would have stayed a private matter. However, it is my hope that in sharing my story that number one, any woman who wants children and is prescribed Lisinopril for high blood pressure will now know to tell her doctor to kick rocks and given her literally any of the dozens of other drugs that are available.
I also want to remind our community at large, that now more than ever we have to be hyper-vigilant self-advocates when it comes to our healthcare and well-being. If something in your gut tells you the advice you’re getting is off, PLEASE get a second opinion. Your life and the life of your child could literally depend on it.
Blue Telusma is a Senior Writer and Executive Producer at theGrio, whose viral think pieces have been featured on CNN, HuffPost, Buzzfeed, USA Today, BET, and several other national news outlets. Her work mainly focuses on dissecting pop culture, promoting emotional intelligence, and fostering activism through the arts.