Growing up, when Ebony Marcelle or a family member were ill, they often visited the emergency room. She recalls the staff treating them like “trash" because they relied on public assistance for their medical care. But then she had an experience that transformed how she thought of the medical field and offered an opportunity for change.
“The person had given me more time and asked me things people had normally never asked me,” Marcelle told TODAY’s Sheinelle Jones as part of a Johnson & Johnson-sponsored series on health care heroes. “And I was like, ‘Why is this so different?’ And she was like, ‘Oh ’cause I’m a midwife.’”
After that experience, Marcelle returned to school to study midwifery. Now, she has dedicated her career to helping reduce racial inequalities in maternity care. This remains a pressing issue in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people are three times more likely than white people to die in childbirth. Midwives like Marcelle can have a tremendously positive impact on people during childbirth. A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that patients of midwives had fewer pre-term births, underweight babies and Cesarean-section delivery.
“The difference between an OB-GYN and a midwife is, number one, midwives are not surgeons. Our philosophy on birth is that it’s not a disease or a medical condition; it’s a normal life transition,” Marcelle said. “Our concept is that this is a holistic experience.”
Her experience with receiving inadequate care and then compassionate care inspires how she treats her patients at Community of Hope Birth Center in Washington, D.C., where she serves as director. Her center is one of five that receives federal funding to help it treat its population, the majority of which receive Medicaid. Many of her patients feel wary of health care because of racism they have experienced in the past.
“The way our maternity care system is set up, everybody is kind of treated with the same kind of cookie-cutter care,” she explained. “The problem is when you’re dealing with communities that are filled with food deserts, high rates of violence (and) histories of trauma, that care is not fitting for them.”
To help, the Community of Hope Birth Center offers patients a nurturing experience.
“Our rooms look like a home,” she said. “It’s such a great experience if you want to move away from more of the standard medical experience.”
Marcelle says that addressing some of the racial inequities should start with an easy step.
“Listen to Black women. We’re out here. Listen to what we have to say.”