“Aftershock” is a moving documentary about the negligence faced by pregnant black women at hospitals in the US. Systemic discrimination has increased the maternal mortality rate, where doctors mistreat black patients and ignore their concerns to the point where they lose their lives. “Aftershock” begins with a montage of homemade videos by Shamony Gibson. Shamony was pregnant with her second child, and she was elated to have another member join her family of three. The homemade videos instantly draw us close to Shamony, a charming personality with an infectious smile. It is the connection that we build with her while watching her pregnancy journey that makes her loss feel quite personal. She could not wait to give birth to her child but was no longer present to live the life she looked forward to. “Aftershock” is an emotional journey with stories of personal losses; it also shows how the healthcare system is trying to reimagine itself in the face of the epidemic. Along with that, the documentary also discusses the history of racism in medical practice.
Shawnee Benton-Gibson, mother of Shamony Gibson, a licensed clinician, embarks on a journey to seek justice for her daughter and the thousands of black women who have lost their lives as a result of medical negligence. Omari, Shamony’s partner, who is left with a newborn to take care of along with their elder daughter, reaches out to the fathers/partners who faced what he was going through. He believed that the men needed a safe space where they could grieve the loss of their partners together since the overwhelming responsibilities along with the injustice they faced could be a lot to process. It is the pain, helplessness, and their desire to fight for the cause that brought the fathers together to share their lived experiences. Shamony had been expressing shortness of breath, chest pain, and discomfort after delivery. They reported the symptoms to the hospital, but the medical facility did not show any concern and asked her to rest. Shamony had to be hospitalized a few days later when she started experiencing acute chest pain. Instead of admitting her immediately, Shawnee was constantly asked if her daughter was a drug abuser. Medical workers bring in a preconceived notion, and often that becomes the reason for delayed help and support. Shamony lost her life to pulmonary embolism. Had the staff at the hospital paid attention to the symptoms Shamony reported, she could have been with her family. She lost her life because she was black, and there was no denying it. It is not just Shamony, but also Amber Rose Issac, Kira Johnson, Maria Corona, and thousands of others who lost their lives because they were denied attention and care.
Historically, Black women were the ones on whom the doctors experimented, Helena Grant, Director of Midwifery, explained. The black and brown populations who are on Medicaid are usually catered to by resident learners starting their careers. During the early years of the United States, the enslaved population was experimented on, and Black women were commodities who constantly had to reproduce for the plantation even if that affected their health. The father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, treated enslaved black women, experimenting with them as and when he deemed necessary. Helena rightfully states that ultimately, it is the combination of overmedicalization and inexperience that results in high mortality and morbidity rates. The concept of midwives is also introduced in the documentary. An age-old tradition, the concept of midwives, was forcefully abandoned to give rise to the institutionalization of nurses who accompanied doctors during delivery. The black midwives were denied from practicing as white women took on the role of the nurse. The newness of the idea of giving birth at hospitals is also addressed. Birthing centers are gradually becoming more popular with the black population, who are fearing for their lives. Transparency and discussion about the birthing process are crucial at the centers, making it an obvious choice for those who can afford it. After losing Amber Rose Issac, Bruce, her partner, advocated for birthing centers, knowing how dangerous hospitals can be. His faith in midwives stemmed from when Nubin Martin, a midwife, analyzed Amber’s reports and asked them to immediately reach out to the hospital since she was losing her platelet count. Even though the couple had reported symptoms of discomfort, the hospital did not take any steps even after they had their reports. After reaching the hospital the final time, they admitted that she suffered from HELLP syndrome. But it was too late, and she lost her life, leaving Bruce with their son Elias.
“Aftershock” also traces the measures taken by Dr. Neel Shah of Harvard School of Medicine to ensure that the medical facility was aware of the systematic problems and worked on them. He discussed how there was an increase in C-section rates, especially among the black population. While he believes that surgery can save one’s life, at the same time, it is a lot riskier than vaginal delivery. It is the system that gatekeeps the patients from making an informed decision. He also points out an obvious reason why C-sections are highly suggested by hospitals; it is the high cost of them that benefits the organization.
Along with the grief, the fight, and the movement, we also witness a birth in this documentary. We are introduced to Felicia Ellis, a black woman who shows concern about the right birthing options, knowing how statistically black women are prone to maternal mortality. She chooses a birth center over a hospital and has the constant support of the midwife. She opts for a vaginal delivery, and the joy she and her partner experienced after giving birth to a healthy baby against all odds was touching.
“Aftershock” brings to the foreground a pertinent issue that brought together families who were broken down by the system, yet they did not give up and chose to unite and demand a better maternal health system. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 is the result of the perseverance of family members who fought for the rights of their community. While the lives lost can never be compensated for, the documentary highlights that when people unite and demand action, it can never be ignored. “Aftershock” reminds its audience of the power that the united voice of common people possesses, especially now that women’s bodies are being regulated.
“Aftershock” is a 2022 Documentary film directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee.