t’s a not-so-simple truth: Black women's health experiences tend to be, well, different. Everything from their experiences of the healthcare system to the specific health challenges they face. Yet if we don't engage in open dialogues about those differences, we aren’t going to be able to effect meaningful change.
In response, Dr. Robyn Jones and Shelina Ramnarine, colleagues at Johnson & Johnson, recently launched “Black Women’s Health Experiences,” an ongoing series of conversations on topics ranging from breast cancer to depression to menopause—and just about everything in between.
For Shelina, what's more, elevating the conversation about Black women's health experiences began by sharing her own.
We need to create more spaces for Black women to talk openly and learn about their own health and wellness.Share
To understand what makes Black women's health experiences and concerns unique or different, a good place to start might be uterine fibroids, noncancerous growths that can develop during childbearing years.
Studies show that nearly one in four Black women between the ages of 18 and 30 have fibroids, compared to just 6% of white women. By age 35, the incidence of uterine fibroids among Black women jumps to 60%, compared to 40% among white women. Black women are also more likely than white women to experience recurring fibroids or suffer from complications.
With that background in mind, Shelina—32 years old and in perfect health—showed up for a routine OBGYN appointment when she received a surprising diagnosis, later confirmed by ultrasounds and an MRI. She had a "heavy load" of fibroids, nine in all. Surgery, including an abdominal myomectomy, was scheduled.
Soon Shelina found herself routinely interacting with a surgeon, which proved to be among the more eye-opening aspects of her experience.
For starters, Shelina remembers feeling compelled to "personalize” herself to her surgeon in the lead-up to the procedure. She felt like she had to mention her credentials (Ph.D, Human and Statistical Genetics), was careful to name-drop Johnson & Johnson and hinted that many, many people would be keeping tabs on her recovery.
"I really thought I needed the surgeon to feel some sort of personal connection with me in order for the surgery to go well," she said.
In other words, despite going to one of the best surgeons in the country, despite having colleagues with broad-based expertise in the healthcare space, Shelina was worried. But that had to do with other factors, too.
Shelina recalled, "I had so much anxiety going through this process because I felt like I was at the mercy of a health system that we know has so many biases against people who look like me. I couldn't figure out how I could protect myself from that. Even in what was essentially a best-case scenario, where I had access to amazing resources, that was my experience."
Eventually, Shelina asked her surgeon, point blank, "How many Black women have you operated on?"
The Black Women’s Health Experiences series addresses several critical gaps by openly discussing common health challenges for women. It also critically delineates specific concerns for Black women, including unnecessary disparities in conditions and care. All participants can take away insights that will help women navigate their health in an informed way and equip women’s advocates to support them on their health journeys. I am so grateful for these events and have learned so much.Share
Initiating Candid Conversations
Fortunately, Shelina’s surgery turned out fine. But the recovery process wasn’t easy.
"I remember when the surgery was first scheduled, I asked my doctor, 'How long will I need to take off from work?' And he said, 'Oh, the recovery should be about two weeks.'"
Discussing the matter back at Johnson & Johnson, Shelina's mentor thought differently.
"She pulled me aside and said, 'No, Shelina, you need to take a month to recover from this,' which was an emotional moment for me because I had thought of the procedure as being so routine. But now, honestly, I'm so glad I took that full month off. For the first two weeks after my surgery, I couldn't even sit up on my own, and by the end of the second week I still couldn't sit up straight. I had to kind of sit at an angle, and I could only do that for a few hours at a time."
(Dr. Lynda Thomas-Mabine, Division Chief of Gynecology at Chestnut Hill Hospital - Tower Health, who joined Shelina and Dr. Jones for one of the inaugural events in the Black Women's Health Experiences series, noted that "a woman’s recovery from fibroid surgery can vary from two to six weeks, depending on the type of fibroid surgery, the complexity of the procedure and the woman’s preexisting conditions.”)
Finally, nearly a month after surgery, Shelina started feeling better. Returning to work, she launched the Black Women's Health Experiences series with Dr. Jones and shared her story at one of the inaugural events.
In the freewheeling Q&A that followed, Shelina, Dr. Jones and Dr. Thomas fielded questions on everything from emerging therapies to contraceptive devices. But the biggest takeaway, they all agreed, was the value of having these conversations in the first place.
As Dr. Jones put it, "In sharing these experiences, what we're doing is empowering ourselves—and empowering others in turn."
It’s important that Black women not only empower and educate themselves with the best available information in order to improve the quality of their lives, but also demand expertise, compassion and accountability from their healthcare providers. Let’s keep the conversations flowing!Share
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