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Olympian Allyson Felix tells Congress of racial disparities in maternal mortality

Six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on overcoming racial disparities and social determinants in the maternal mortality crisis. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Allyson Felix, the only woman to win six Olympic track and field gold medals, told a House committee the harrowing tale of a pregnancy scare that threatened both her life and that of her unborn daughter at a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill. She called it the “two most terrifying days of my life.”

Just as scary for Felix: She later learned that she’s far from alone in experiencing these life-threatening complications during pregnancy and child birth.

“There were others like me,” she said, “just like me. Black like me, healthy like me, doing their best — just like me. They faced death like me, too.”

Felix spoke before the House Ways and Means Committee at a hearing focused on racial disparities in maternal mortality. She suffered from a case of severe preeclampsia and had an emergency Caesarean section 32 weeks into her pregnancy last November. The 33-year-old sprinter was among six witnesses the committee heard from Thursday morning, joining doctors, academics and medical experts in outlining the risks and dangers faced disproportionately by African American women in pregnancy and childbirth.

Felix recalled going to a routine prenatal appointment where doctors grew concerned about her daughter’s irregular heartbeat. Aside from swelling feet, Felix hadn’t experienced anything abnormal during her pregnancy. But then the doctor stepped out of the office.

“Those moments sitting in her office alone felt like one of those moments in life that are full of anxious anticipation,” Felix told the committee. “One of those moments that people describe as time standing still. … Those few moments lasted an eternity.”

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Felix was told she needed to go to the hospital. She explained that she first had to tend to an ESPN photo shoot, but the doctor told her not to wait.

At the hospital, doctors explained that both Felix and her daughter were both at risk, and she was stunned. “Mothers don’t die from childbirth, right? Not in 2019,” she said, “not professional athletes, not at one of the best hospitals in the country, and certainly not to women who have a birthing plan and a birthing suite lined up. I thought maternal health was solely about fitness, resources and care. If that was true, then why was this happening to me?”

Camryn was born about 10 hours later and had to spend the next month in a newborn intensive care unit.

Felix has since learned that she’s not alone, that African American women face pregnancy complications at much higher rates, that some 50,000 American women will experience a life-threatening condition related to childbirth or pregnancy and that figure is increasing, and that African American women are nearly three times more likely to die from complications than white women.

“I was not aware that I was more at risk,” Felix told the committee. “I think that says a lot. It’s not really talked about … but it is a real issue. I think had I been more aware, maybe I would’ve had better questions to ask. Maybe when I first saw my swollen feet, I would’ve rushed in.”

Hundreds of women die each year from pregnancy issues. Most of the deaths could be prevented

Camryn is nearly 6 months old, and Felix has resumed her running career. She is training for next summer’s Tokyo Games, which would mark her fifth Olympics. She plans to compete at the U.S. championships this July in Des Moines, most likely in the 400 meters. A top-three showing would qualify her for the world championships, which begin in September in Doha, Qatar.

Regardless of her future track performances, Felix says she wants to use her platform to raise awareness on the risks and dangers faced by African American women during pregnancy and childbirth. Lawmakers and panelists repeatedly called it a crisis Thursday, and the committee said it would continue to explore the matter. Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) urged Felix to serve as a public face for the issue.

During questioning by committee members, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) noted that Felix was in great physical condition and asked if there was anything more she could have done to avoid the complications that led to her emergency C-section.

“For me as an athlete, I know how to be healthy, I know how to take care of my body and I did do everything right. I think that’s really what’s scary,” Felix said. “I was still at a higher risk. I went through all these complications. I wish could give you an answer. I don’t know. But I do know this conversation is a great place to start. Hopefully we can come up with some answers.”

Read more about Allyson Felix:

Allyson Felix, U.S. track and field teammates, have stellar night at Olympics

Shaunae Miller dives to gold over Allyson Felix in women’s 400 meters

It’s still not easy for Allyson Felix to accept defeat