Earlier this year, North Carolina native Ellen Rucker Sellers gave birth to twins. Her pregnancy, which was high risk, went well, but her labor and delivery had some unexpected complications. What should have been a happy experience quickly turned left when Ellen began to slip in and out of consciousness after giving birth and her husband, former politician and attorney Bakari Sellers, began to panic. Nurses at the hospital brushed off their concerns but Ellen’s husband demanded someone tend to his wife.
Eventually, Ellen’s own team of doctors were able to get to the hospital and determined that she was going into hemorrhagic shock. Luckily for the Sellers Family, the crisis was averted but this story isn’t rare. Black women in the United States are three times more likely than their white counterparts to die in childbirth and no amount of money or education seems to make a difference in treatment.
Ellen, who is now healed, healthy and happy, has made it her mission to educate other women about getting the help they need and having their voices heard when medical professionals aren’t listening. Proceeds from her hair care line, Rucker Roots, go toward maternity health education and Ellen also talks about her experience as much as she can via her blog. Madame Noire caught up with Ellen to discuss her experience and the importance of advocacy.
MadameNoire (MN): One of the things you mentioned in your birth story that really stuck out to me, was that you made sure you found doctors who looked like you. I did the same thing, and I felt like I was able to have conversations with her that I don’t think I’d feel comfortable having with other people, and I like that she took my concerns seriously. Can you speak to your experience with that?
Ellen Rucker Sellers (ERS): I don’t know if you know my full story. I did IVF to conceive my twins. I didn’t know that I was going to have twins. I did IVF because we were, Bakari and I had been trying to get pregnant for like three years, and we weren’t getting pregnant. And so the first IVF cycle, I had an older gentleman [doctor], he was Caucasian and I found that he just didn’t take me on as I felt like I was just a number.
So, that was my first encounter with switching to another doctor. She was an African American female. I did the cycle with the older gentleman, I did not get pregnant, I didn’t even have any eggs after going through a full cycle of stimulation and all that stuff. I was just doing so much medicine and I still didn’t have any eggs. And not to sound racist or anything like that, I’m not trying to say that. I just think that sometimes women, we know our bodies a little bit better. So I switched doctors and she got me pregnant. That was my first kind of encounter of, “Okay, I really need to take control of the situation and really take control of my healthcare.”
I knew that I wanted doctors that really cared about me and didn’t make me feel like I was just a number. I had a personal relationship with this group of doctors and I was a patient of theirs several years back, but because of insurance reasons, I had switched to a different group. But when I found out I was pregnant with twins I was like, “Okay, I don’t care. I’m just going to switch back to them.”
The practice is three African American women and I had a personal relationship with them and I just felt like it was important for me, because I was high risk, it was important for me to go back to them, because I knew that they would take my care seriously. And they did.
MN: How was the pregnancy for you?
ERS: That’s the thing after I got pregnant, I didn’t have many complications at all. Everybody was concerned because I’m a small-framed woman. I’m only 5’1. Everyone was really concerned about me carrying twins, but my doctors were never concerned. They were just like, “As long as you take care of yourself you’re going to be fine, your body will adapt and adjust,” and it did. I didn’t have any complications. The babies were growing right on schedule. I didn’t have any kind of scare during my pregnancy, which was a blessing.
MN: Let’s talk about your labor and delivery because I read that was when you started to feel like something was wrong and you were brushed off by the staff. What was that experience?
ERS: I was out of it, so I got this [information] from my husband after the fact. I had the babies around 5:28, 5:32 and then my family had come to visit, and we enjoyed the babies for a couple of hours. Then everybody left, and it was around 11:00 at night and I was nursing the babies. When you have twins, they have a lot of lactation specialists come in; they want to make sure you’ll be able to feed them. So the lactation nurse was there and Bakari was there, and he was sitting and the lactation nurse was helping me to nurse my babies. And I told Bakari, “I’m feeling hot, is the temperature right in the room?” And that’s the last thing that I remember saying to him and I was out.
They grabbed the babies, obviously, and put them in the bassinet and he was over me when I came to again and he said that he had called for the nurses and he was patting my mouth because I had vomited. So in our group text, because my doctor, myself and my husband, we have a group text — that’s another thing, you don’t have that kind of relationship unless you’re fortunate to know the doctor. Some doctors just really care and they’ll give you their cell phone number and you’re able to text them. So on the group text my husband was like, “Why aren’t these nurses responding to me?” and my doctor said, “What do you mean?” and he’s like, “They’re not responding” and so the next time I came to, he’s out of the door screaming down the hallway, like, “Somebody help my wife!” and nobody was responding to him. That was five minutes or so of no response or maybe even longer, maybe even ten minutes or so. And I was in and out of consciousness. I don’t know exactly the timing, but he was very mad. He actually even filed a complaint with the hospital, because he was very upset about the fact that they weren’t listening.
After he filed the complaint, the president of the hospital came, he was very upset about it, my husband was very upset because he said that they didn’t respond. And it was nurses on call, it wasn’t really a doctor, the doctor had gone home. So it was the nurses on call that were treating me like this. I don’t know if you know Charles Johnson IV?
MN: Yes, his mom is Judge Hatchett right? He lost his wife after she gave birth due to staff not listening.
ERS: Yeah. He mentioned that one of the nurses said that his wife wasn’t a priority at the time and she ended up dying. She bled out for eleven hours, without anybody checking her. So, you know, we knew, my husband and I knew about this, obviously, Bakari called him. He’s really an advocate for healthcare for infants and the mortality rate for African American mothers. I mean, the death rate is so much higher than any other race.
You just never know, you never know what your body will do. My body just flipped out over me having twins and my fibroid. My fibroid grew to a bigger size than what we thought it had. It had grown to a peach size. I had great prenatal care, I don’t know how we didn’t know that, or maybe they knew it and they didn’t think that it was going to prevent or cause problems.
MN: I have one too that I know of from when I was pregnant. The doctor said she saw it and she said it was small, and that we’ll watch it because pregnancy can make fibroids grow but that was it. I didn’t hear anything else about it.
ERS: I think as African American women, a lot of times we are more predisposed to these fibroids and I think that maybe that could be a contributing factor to some of the problems that we have with fertility as well as some of the problems that we have in childbirth. But yeah, I mean, we knew but we didn’t know that it was going to cause all these complications. But Bakari was livid and he said that they took too long to respond, he said that he had to really basically scream and holler to get their attention. But when he got their attention, when I woke up, when I came to it was like 30 people in my room and my doctors were on their way [because] they had left for the night. When I came to, maybe two or three minutes later, my doctors, all three of them were at my bedside. They were all three there working on me [and] I had three physicians doing my surgery and that just does not happen either.
MN: Going back to your husband. I think sometimes people feel like you can’t argue with medical staff or you can’t force them to do anything. What’s the importance of that type of advocacy from someone who loves you?
ERS: I can’t put words to how important that is. It was almost impossible for him to be [calm] because my body was just in total shock. But, to have him as an advocate, I’m so lucky. I feel so blessed to have someone that was aware and not scared and any of those things going into it.
MN: And you guys are an affluent family. You’re educated, you’re a chiropractor an entrepreneur. Your husband is on TV, and still—
ERS: And that’s the thing. That’s what a lot of activists– they talk about how it doesn’t matter how much education you have. It doesn’t matter what your social economic status is, it doesn’t matter about any of those things. Sometimes they don’t listen to us, no matter what and you have to basically scream and call people out in order for them to get-
MN: To convince them of our humanity.
ERS: Yeah. [My husband] had to basically curse down the hallway to get attention. My doctors were on it. But they weren’t there [so] we were relying on the nurses.
MN: How has this experience changed you?
ERS: We have been blessed to have had great experiences in education and we’re an educated family. We have a nice socioeconomic status. It just makes me want to advocate more for those who can’t. It makes me want to give back, speak up, talk more, share my experiences with others so that they are more aware of what may happen and that they can advocate for themselves, because of my voice, hopefully. I think that’s what has changed in me. A lot of times you just need extra voices out there to advocate, so that the healthcare field can listen and make those changes.
MN: Tell me about Rucker Roots and how this business has become a vessel for you to help spread awareness.
ERS: Rucker Roots [my sister and I’s] hair care line, fortunately, we’re growing and we’re about to be in major retail stores in March. We’re excited about that. It has really given us a platform to be out there and more engaged with social media. We had our reality TV show a couple years ago and we have a nice following from that, so many people just love our products and hopefully, we can use that as a vessel to give back and do some other things.
Right now we have a Rucker Education Scholarship fund, so we already give back scholarships every year, to kids in South Carolina, to go to college, we give scholarships through that fund. And so hopefully we can just continue to do some community activist things and hopefully extend it to advocating for maternal and fetal mortality rate.