This Pregnant Woman's Harrowing Experience Highlights the Disparities In Healthcare for Black Women

Krystian Mitryk says she was suffering unnecessarily from extreme hyperemesis gravidarum after doctors and nurses repeatedly dismissed her symptoms.

Krystian Mitryk was just five and a half weeks pregnant when she started experiencing debilitating nausea, vomiting, dehydration, and severe fatigue. From the get-go, she knew her symptoms were caused by hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), an extreme form of morning sickness that affects less than 2 percent of women. She knew because she had experienced this before.

"I had HG during my first pregnancy, so I had a feeling it was a possibility this time around," Mitryk tells Shape. (FYI: It's common for HG to recur in multiple pregnancies.)

In fact, before Mitryk's symptoms even set in, she says she tried to get ahead of the issue by reaching out to the doctors at her obstetrics practice and asking if there were any precautions she could take. But since she wasn't experiencing any symptoms yet, they told her to take it easy, stay hydrated, and be mindful of her food portions, says Mitryk. (Here are some other health concerns that can pop up during pregnancy.)

But Mitryk knew her body better than anyone, and her gut instincts were spot on; she developed HG symptoms just a few days after reaching out for preliminary advice. From that point on, Mitryk says she knew the road ahead was going to be tough.

Finding the Right Treatment

After a few days of "constant vomiting," Mitryk says she called her obstetrics practice and was prescribed an oral nausea medication. "I told them I didn't think oral meds would work because I literally couldn't keep anything down," she explains. "But they insisted I try it."

Two days later, Mitryk was still throwing up, unable to hold down any food or water (let alone anti-nausea pills). After reaching out to the practice again, she was told to visit their labor and triage unit. "I got there and they hooked me up to intravenous (IV) fluids and nausea medication," she says. "Once I was stable, they sent me home."

This series of events happened four more times over the course of a month, says Mitryk. "I'd go in, they'd hook me up to fluids and nausea medication, and when I felt a bit better, they'd send me home," she explains. But the moment the fluids were out of her system, her symptoms would return, forcing her to go into the practice repeatedly, she says.

After weeks of treatments that didn't help, Mitryk says she convinced her doctors to put her on a Zofran pump. Zofran is a strong anti-nausea medication that's often given to chemo patients but can also be effective for women with HG. The pump is attached to the stomach using a tiny catheter and controls the constant drip of the nausea medication into the system, according to the HER Foundation.

"The pump went everywhere with me, including the shower," says Mitryk. Every night, Mitryk's wife would take the needle out and re-embed it in the morning. "Even though the tiny needle shouldn't hurt, I had lost so much body fat from throwing up that the pump left me feeling red and sore," shares Mitryk. "On top of that, I could barely walk because of the fatigue, and I was still vomiting profusely. But I was willing to do anything to stop puking my guts out."

A week passed and Mitryk's symptoms didn't get any better. She landed in the labor and delivery triage unit again, desperate for help, she explains. Since none of the treatments were working, Mitryk tried advocating for herself and asked to be hooked up to a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line, she says. A PICC line is a long, thin, flexible tube that is inserted through a vein in the arm to pass long-term IV medication through to larger veins near the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. "I asked for a PICC line because it's what helped my HG symptoms [during my first pregnancy]," says Mitryk.

But even though Mitryk expressed that a PICC line had been effective in treating her HG symptoms in the past, she says an ob-gyn at her obstetrics practice deemed it unnecessary. At this point, Mitryk says she started to feel like the dismissal of her symptoms had something to do with race — and a proceeding conversation with her doctor confirmed her suspicion, she explains. "After telling me I couldn't have the treatment that I wanted, this doctor asked me if my pregnancy was planned," says Mitryk. "I was offended by the question because I felt like an assumption was made that I must have had an unplanned pregnancy because I was Black."

What's more, Mitryk says her medical chart clearly stated that she was in a same-sex relationship and had gotten pregnant via intrauterine Insemination (IUI), a fertility treatment that involves placing sperm inside the uterus to facilitate fertilization. "It was like she didn't even bother to read my chart because, in her eyes, I didn't look like someone who would plan a family," shares Mystrik. (

Krystian Mitryk

It was clear that neither I nor my baby mattered enough for her to look for alternative treatments to help me.

— Krystian Mitryk

Still, Mitryk says she kept her cool and confirmed that her pregnancy was indeed planned. But instead of changing her tone, the doctor started talking to Mitryk about her other options. "She told me that I didn't have to go through with my pregnancy if I didn't want to," says Mitryk. Shocked, Mitryk says she asked the doctor to repeat what she'd said, in case she'd misheard. "Very nonchalantly, she told me that several moms choose to terminate pregnancies if they can't handle HG complications," she says. "So [the ob-gyn said] I could do that if I was feeling overwhelmed." (

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," continues Mitryk. "You would think that a doctor — someone you trust with your life — would exhaust all options before suggesting an abortion. It was clear that neither I nor my baby mattered enough for her to look for alternative treatments to help me."

Following the extremely uncomfortable interaction, Mitryk says she was sent home and told to wait and see if the Zofran would work. As Mitryk expected, it didn't.

Advocating for Her Health

After spending another day throwing up acid and bile into a disposable vomit bag, Mitryk once again wound up at her obstetrics practice, she says. "At this point, even the nurses knew who I was," she explains. As Mitryk's physical condition continued to decline, it became increasingly challenging for her to make so many doctor visits with a 2-year-old son at home and her wife starting a new job.

Then, there was the issue of COVID-19. "I was so afraid of getting exposed, and I wanted to do anything I could to limit my visits," says Mitryk.

Listening to Mitryk's concerns and witnessing her desperate condition, a nurse immediately paged the on-call doctor — the same doctor who had treated Mitryk before. "I knew this was a bad sign because this doctor had a history of not listening to me," she says. "Every time I saw her, she poked her head in, told the nurses to hook me up to IV fluids, and sent me home. She never once asked me about my symptoms or how I was feeling."

Unfortunately, the doctor did exactly what Mitryk expected, she explains. "I was frustrated and at my wit's end," she says. "I told the nurses I didn't want to be in this doctor's care and that I'd literally see anyone else who was willing to take my situation seriously."

The nurses recommended that Mitryk go to the hospital affiliated with their practice and get second opinions from their on-call ob-gyns. The nurses also let the on-call doc at the obstetrics practice know that Mitryk no longer wanted to be her patient. (

Moments after arriving at the hospital, Mitryk was immediately admitted given her declining health, she recalls. On the first night of her stay, she explains, an ob-gyn agreed that placing a PICC line was the best course of treatment. The day after, another ob-gyn seconded that decision, says Mitryk. On day three, the hospital reached out to Mitryk's obstetrics practice, asking them if they could move forward with their recommended PICC line treatment. But the obstetrics practice denied the hospital's request, says Mitryk. Not only that, but the practice also dismissed Mitryk as a patient while she was in the affiliated hospital — and since the practice fell under the hospital's umbrella, the hospital lost its jurisdiction to give her the treatment she needed, explains Mitryk.

Krystian Mitryk

As a Black, gay woman in America, I am no stranger to feeling less-than. But that was one of those moments when it was clear that those doctors and nurses couldn't care less about me or my baby.

— Krystian Mitryk

"I had been admitted for three days, completely alone because of COVID, and sick beyond belief," she shares. "Now I was being told that I was being denied the treatment I needed to feel better? As a Black, gay woman in America, I am no stranger to feeling less-than. But that was one of those moments when it was clear that those doctors and nurses [at the obstetrics practice] couldn't care less about me or my baby." (

"I couldn't help but think about all the Black women who've felt like this," says Mitryk. "Or how many of them suffered irreparable health complications or even lost their lives because of this type of negligent behavior."

Later, Mitryk learned that she was dismissed from the practice solely on the grounds that she had a "personality clash" with the doctor who wouldn't take her symptoms seriously, she says. "When I called the practice's risk management department, they told me that the doctor's 'feelings were hurt,' which is why she decided to let me go," explains Mitryk. "The doctor also assumed I was going to go find care elsewhere. Even if that were the case, denying me the treatment I needed, when I was sick with a potentially life-threatening condition, blatantly proved that there was no regard for my health and wellbeing."

It took six days for Mitryk to reach a stable-enough condition to be discharged from the hospital, she says. Even then, she adds, she still wasn't in great shape, and she still didn't have a long-term solution to her suffering. "I walked out of there, [still] actively throwing up into a bag," she recalls. "I felt completely hopeless and scared that no one was going to help me."

A few days later, Mitryk was able to get into another obstetrics practice where her experience was (fortunately) drastically different. "I walked in, they immediately admitted me, huddled, consulted, acted like real doctors, and put me on a PICC line," explains Mitryk.

The treatment worked, and after two days, Mitryk was discharged. "I haven't thrown up or been nauseous since," she shares.

How You Can Advocate for Yourself

While Mitryk finally got the help she needed, the reality is that Black women are too often failed by America's healthcare system. Multiple studies show that racial bias can affect how doctors assess and treat pain. On average, roughly one in five Black women report discrimination when going to the doctor or clinic, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

"Krystian's story and similar experiences are unfortunately too common," says Robyn Jones, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and senior medical director of women's health at Johnson & Johnson. "Black women are less likely to be listened to by medical professionals due to conscious and unconscious bias, racial discrimination, and systemic inequities. This leads to a lack of trust between Black women and doctors, further compounding a lack of access to quality care." (That's one of many reasons why the U.S. desperately needs more Black female doctors.)

When Black women find themselves in these situations, advocacy is the best policy, says Dr. Jones. "Krystian did exactly what I encourage expecting mothers to do: calmly speak up from a space of knowledge and thoughtfulness in your interactions with healthcare professionals regarding your wellbeing, good health, and prevention," she explains. "Although at times these situations may become very emotional, do your best to manage that emotion to get your points across in a way that is calm, yet firm." (

In some cases (as in Mitryk's), there may come a time when you need to transfer to other care, notes Dr. Jones. Regardless, it's important to remember that you're entitled to receive the best care possible, and you have every right to gain all the knowledge that you can about your situation, explains Dr. Jones.

Still, speaking up for yourself can be intimidating, adds Dr. Jones. Below, she shares guidelines that can help you navigate tricky conversations with your doctors and make sure you're getting the healthcare you deserve.

  1. Health literacy is essential. In other words, know and understand your personal health situation, as well as your family's health history, when advocating for yourself and speaking up to healthcare providers.
  2. If you feel brushed off, clearly state to your physician that you don't feel heard. Phrases like "I need you to listen to me," or "You're not hearing me," can go further than you think.
  3. Remember, you know your own body best. If you've voiced your concerns and still don't feel heard, consider having a friend or family member join you during these conversations to help amplify your voice and message.
  4. Consider a more comprehensive approach to your maternal care. That can include the support of a doula and/or care by a certified nurse-midwife. Also, rely on the power of telemedicine (especially in today's time), which can connect you to a care provider wherever you may be.
  5. Create time to learn and seek information from credible resources. Resources such as Black Women's Health Imperative, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Office of Minority Health, and Office on Women's Health can help you stay in the know about healthcare issues that may impact you.

Even if you feel you don't need to advocate for yourself, you can help other women by joining certain networks and groups on a local and/or national level, suggests Dr. Jones.

"Look for opportunities with large national advocacy groups like the March for Moms," she says. "Locally, it's helpful to connect with other women and mothers in your area through Facebook or within your community to have an open dialogue about these topics and to share experiences. Together, you can even find local organizations that focus on these causes that may need additional support."

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