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Treating severe hypertension in Black pregnant women

Black women are about three times more likely to face maternal death than white women.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Motherhood can be the most rewarding experience, but the journey can be challenging.

Severe hypertension is one of the leading causes of death and disease among pregnant women especially in Black women.

We spoke with doctors and nurses at Baptist about what they are doing to improve the quality of life.

Hypertension is known as the silent killer. Many pregnant women, particularly Black women, have it.

It's so common that two patients were going to share their stories with us but both were called into early labor for this reason.

Science has come so far.  

“It is marvelous to see that anyone can give me a call and tell me we have this. All I have to say is let’s start the protocol,” said Dr. Jacques Samson, Baptist Memorial Hospital’s Maternal Fetal Medicine Director.

Dr. Samson treats pregnant women with high blood pressure or preeclampsia.

“Hypertension disorder is one of the more common causes of maternal morbidity such as stroke, heart attack, and death,” said Dr. Samson.

The numbers are particularly high among Black women. They are 3.5 times more likely to face maternal death than white women.

“We’ve known about preeclampsia. The first that I remember in the literature was around 456 B.C.E. Throughout the literature, you see these quotes. ‘I don’t know what this is, but people are dying,’” said Dr. Samson.

That has all changed with the advancement of science and technology.

In 2019, Baptist started the Severe Hypertension in Pregnancy and Postpartum (SHIPP). It's a standardized program treating pregnant women with severe hypertension.

Camelle Fishel and Gina Horne are nurses who helped develop the program.

“When you have a standardized protocol, that means everybody gets the same. Everybody has the same treatment…equitable among all populations,” said Baptist's Nursing Assistant Director, Gina Horne.

That's key from the time of pregnancy to postpartum.

“The only cure for pre-eclampsia is delivery of the baby…The doctors know just how long you can stay pregnant safely and when it’s time to be delivered. It can change overnight,” said Baptist's Perinatal Services Director, Camelle Fishel.

“A lot of times, these women are young women and they feel good, so they don’t realize that they are very sick,” said Horne.

Some symptoms include high blood pressure, headaches, or spotty vision.

“We worry about seizures. We worry about stroke, heart attack, death in mom and baby,” said Dr. Samson. “There is a high rate of preeclampsia in the community. Part of why I returned to Memphis is because it is such an impact ... We need more people to be very vigilant and diligent in making not only the diagnosis but implementing the appropriate care.”

The goal is to end the disparity for a start to a better life.

The American Congress of OBGYN has now implemented a standardized program for severe hypertension in pregnant women as well.

We now know how to recognize it, treat it, and one day prevent it.

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