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Allyson Felix: Olympic teammate Tori Bowie’s death must be ‘wake-up call’

English Gardner, Allyson Felix, Tianna Madison and Tori Bowie won gold in the 4x100-meter relay at the 2016 Olympics. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Allyson Felix is speaking out about the death of her U.S. Olympic teammate Tori Bowie from complications of childbirth.

For Felix, Bowie’s death highlights the urgent need for better maternal health care for Black women.

“I hate that it takes Tori’s situation to put this back on the map and to get people to pay attention to it. But oftentimes, we need that wake-up call,” Felix said in a first-person essay for Time magazine.

Bowie was approximately eight months pregnant and in labor when she died, according to an autopsy report. Possible complications contributing to her death may have included respiratory distress and eclampsia.

In her Time essay, Felix details her own childbirth experience, including how she developed preeclampsia while pregnant with her daughter and required an emergency C-section.

“I was unsure if I was going to make it. If I was ever going to hold my precious daughter,” she wrote. While she had developed swelling in her feet, which is a sign of preeclampsia, Felix had no idea what to watch for, she wrote.

Eclampsia is characterized by one or more seizures during pregnancy or during the postpartum period, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition develops from preeclampsia, which causes pregnant women to suddenly develop high blood pressure and other complications.

Studies have found that American-born Black women have a higher risk for developing preeclampsia. According to the CDC, the maternal death rate for Black women in the United States in 2021 was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 births, which is 2.6 times higher than the rate of maternal death among white women.

“Like so many Black women, I was unaware of the risks I faced while pregnant,” Felix wrote. “Not once did someone say, ‘oh, well, that’s one of the indicators of preeclampsia.’ None of us knew. When I became pregnant, my doctor didn’t sit me down and tell me, ‘these are things that you should look for in your pregnancy, because you are at a greater risk to experience these complications.’”

And Felix isn’t the only one. Beyoncé developed preeclampsia during pregnancy. In giving birth to daughter Olympia, Serena Williams developed near-death complications, including blood clots in her lungs. And another Olympic teammate of both Bowie and Felix’s, Tianna Madison, went into labor early and delivered at 26 weeks.

“As of June 2023…3 of the 4 members of Team USA’s 4x100m relay team…who ran the SECOND fastest time in history, and brought home THEE gold medal…have nearly died or did die in childbirth,” Madison wrote on Twitter. “We deserve better. #BlackMaternalHealthCrisis”

The lack of education, Felix wrote, “needs to change now, especially in light of Tori’s tragic passing.”

“The medical community must do its part,” she wrote. “There are so many stories of women dying who haven’t been heard. Doctors really need to hear the pain of Black women.”

There have been steps toward change. In May, legislation titled the Momnibus Act was introduced in Congress. A package of 13 bills, it was crafted to “eliminate racial disparities in maternal health and improve outcomes across the board.” Back in 2021, California passed similar legislation, which makes investments in areas including housing, nutrition and transportation for underserved communities. Pharmaceutical companies are also looking into early detection and treatment of preeclampsia.

Still, while Felix would love to have another child, she is concerned about being alive to raise it amid what she calls a “Black Maternal Health crisis.”

“This is America, in 2023, and Black women are dying while giving birth. It’s absurd,” she wrote. “I’m hopeful that things can get better. I’m hopeful that Tori, who stood on the podium at Rio, gold around her neck and sweetness in her soul, won’t die in vain.”