Aftershock opens with joyful images—parents playing with babies, a young mother eagerly looking forward to the birth of her child—a choice that makes the tragedy at the film’s core hit that much harder. That tragedy is the preventable death, in childbirth or due to post-childbirth complications, of too many black women in the United States. Thanks to the skill of directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, after seeing Aftershock, you won’t be likely to think of “maternal mortality” as just one more statistic—instead, you may see it as a tragedy that robs a woman of her life, her children of their mother, her parents of a child, and her partner of the love of their life.
The stories of two women, and their families, form the central core of Aftershock. Shamony Gibson, age 30, died in October 2019, less than two weeks after the birth of her second child. Amber Rose Isaac died in April 2020 following an emergency c-section. Their partners, Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre, become activists in the fight to improve birth outcomes for black women. They have many allies in this fight—family members of women who died in childbirth (including Shamony’s mother Shawnee Benton Gibson), midwives, health care providers, birthing center operators, and health researchers—but are fighting against a model of childbirth that emphasizes medical intervention in the birth process yet discounts information provided by some mothers and their families about her health and wellbeing.
The deaths of Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac are both illustrative of this point. Gibson died from a pulmonary embolism, after experiencing multiple indications that something was seriously wrong—difficulty in inserting an IV in the hospital, fatigue and shortness of breath after returning home—that were ignored by the medical professionals charged with her care. Less than two weeks after giving birth, she was back in the hospital, where the doctors found blood clots in her lungs and legs, but were unable to save her life. Isaac experienced HELLP syndrome, a variant of preeclampsia, during her pregnancy, and her platelet levels dropped so low that she was considered too high-risk for a home delivery. Meanwhile, her prenatal care was hampered by the COVID pandemic (most of her visits were virtual), but also, she felt, by a medical team uninterested in listening to her. She died following an emergency c-section, when her blood failed to clot—a predictable outcome given that platelets play a vital role in blood clotting.
For all the money America spends on medical care, you’d think we’d have the best outcomes in the world. Sad to say, that’s not always the case, and one glaring example is maternal mortality. Childbirth is a common experience (over 3.6 million babies were born in the United States in 2020, according to the CDC), and you’d think by this time the medical profession would be able to get it right. The maternal mortality rate in the United States is 17.4 per 100,000 live births, and while that may sound like a low number, it’s far higher than in our peer countries: 1.7 per 100,000 in New Zealand, 1.8 per 100,000 in Norway, and 3.0 per 100,000 in the Netherlands, for instance.
Black women are disproportionately affected by maternal mortality, and at least some of that difference may be attributable to poorer quality care. That certainly seems to be the case for both Gibson and Isaac, and racism often makes it difficult for family members to advocate for loved ones. As one of the men puts it, if the hospital staff thinks he’s being too assertive in demanding care for his wife, he’s classified as an “angry black man” and perceived as a threat, rather than as a concerned partner informing the staff about something regarding a patient’s condition. The combination of racism, misogyny, and a ridiculously complex system for providing and paying for health care create a perfect storm of risk for black women giving birth, and one can only hope that this film can play a role in bringing more attention to this problem. | Sarah Boslaugh
Aftershock is available for home viewing in the United States as part of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. Further information is available through the festival web site.