Northside patient fortunate to have survived pregnancy complications, which disproportionally take the lives of black women.
Before delivering her fourth son on December 8, 2021, La’Keshia Stewart-Baker, 38, of Lawrenceville, experienced pregnancy complications. Her blood pressure was high, and she began having chest pains when her son was born. But La’Keshia stabilized and was released from Northside Hospital Atlanta.
Three days later, pressure in her chest made it difficult to breathe, fluid retention swelled her extremities and her blood pressure skyrocketed. She was admitted to Northside Hospital Gwinnett, where Dr. Michele Voeltz, a cardio-obstetrics specialist at Northside, was called in to manage La’Keshia’s life-threatening condition.
Dr. Voeltz asked many questions and ran a battery of tests, leading to a diagnosis of post-partum preeclampsia, which she successfully treated with medication and later with lifestyle changes. Today, La’Keshia is healthy and grateful for Dr. Voeltz’s skill, insight and compassion.
“Dr. Voeltz is a miracle worker,” La’Keshia says. “She asked many, many questions on my medical history with my other pregnancies…. She was very thorough, and I was so comfortable with her, even though she didn’t know me then…. I thank God for her doing those tests. Dr. Voeltz knew almost immediately what I needed.”
La’Keshia, a Black woman, is fortunate. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than Caucasian women. Multiple issues – including physiology, implicit bias and structural racism – contribute to that disparity, Dr. Voeltz says. Black women are more likely to have high blood pressure and obesity. Beyond those risk factors are biases that too often lead medical providers to dismiss Black patients’ concerns, she adds.
“Patients need to feel heard, and doctors need to listen,” Dr. Voeltz says. “Providers must put aside preconceived notions that patients are being overly dramatic and exaggerating…. We must really, really listen to our patients.”
La’Keshia could have had a different, tragic outcome, such as a stroke, intracranial hemorrhage or even death, Dr. Voeltz says. But, wisely, La’Keshia listened to her instincts, knew something was not right and returned to the hospital, she adds.
Dr Voeltz advises pregnant women and new moms, along with their partners, to call their medical providers if they sense something is wrong. The symptoms of preeclampsia and other pregnancy-related complications can sometimes be subtle. They may include shortness of breath and swelling that does not subside. Often, these conditions require diagnosis and treatment by a cardio-obstetrics specialist like Dr. Voeltz, who is one of the few Atlanta physicians practicing in this hybrid medical specialty.
Pregnancy-related complications can even lead to cardiac conditions years after women give birth, Dr. Voeltz notes. Moms who have had problems with their blood pressure or placenta, preeclampsia, and women who have delivered babies under 6 pounds should be evaluated by a cardiologist, she adds.
“These conditions are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, even 25 to 30 years after delivery,” Dr. Voeltz says. “It's critically important that we address risk factors in women with a history of pregnancy-related complications to avoid heart attack and stroke decades later.”