For neonatal care specialist and pediatrician Dr. Terri Major-Kincade, tennis champion Serena Williams’ experience of motherhood is a cautionary tale. The all-time great athlete wrote in 2022 about how she nearly died after giving birth in 2017, when doctors initially ignored her concerns about post-delivery symptoms.
If Williams wasn’t listened to despite being in great physical shape and having access to the best health care, how much more at risk are other Black and minority women without such advantages? says Dr. Terri, as she is affectionately known. Her expertise has made her a Pampers ambassador, popular keynote conference speaker and frequent TV medical expert (plus consultant to hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy).
Poor access and poor patient care contribute to an alarming health disparity—Black moms are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Additional contributing factors include underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias.
“Because when I’m in front of you in your hospital, if you look at me [and] you don’t see your mom, you don’t see your siser, you don’t see your friend, and you don’t treat me the same way you would want somebody in your family treated, I’m not going to have a good health outcome,” Dr. Terri says.
Black women are also 50% more likely to deliver a premature baby compared to their white and Hispanic peers. The risk of pre-term birth in the Black community is linked to key factors including elevated rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.
Dr. Terri says it’s critical that expectant moms feel empowered to advocate for themselves. That means speaking up when you have concerns, and looking for a different healthcare provider if you are not satisfied with the way you are being treated. She also recommends having a loved one attend appointments as an additional source of support and advice. “You’re not crazy,” she says. “You know your body and you deserve to be listened to when you’re asking for total consideration, respect and control over what happens to your body.”
Among the issues that need to be addressed, Dr. Terri says, is the bias of many medical professionals who may give care based on their personal perception of the expectant mom; some providers believe the mother doesn’t take care of herself well or may judge her if she has multiple children. “And so we have a lot of work to do to unpack those thoughts that impact decision-making about our care,” she says.
The Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science graduate advises moms-to-be to express their concerns clearly during a first doctor’s visit and ask what the physician and their office are doing in regard to the Black maternal health crisis.
“They need to say something besides, ‘Look, I’m doing the best I can…’ If they are totally stunned, and they say, ‘OK, this is an angry Black woman; I don’t want them in my practice,’ good—‘Glad we found this out before my baby got here.’”
Dr. Terri’s mission was established at an early age. Her sister, Brigette, weighed less than one pound when she was born. “I was just fascinated that she was small enough to fit in your hand,” Dr. Terri remembers.
“The fact that she even survived and is normal is a true miracle… Every time I meet a family, I think about what my parents went through, and how lucky I am to have a sister.”
She notes that her sister benefited from the heightened awareness of the need for better neonatal care services following the death of President John F. Kennedy’s premature son, Patrick, a couple of years before Brigette came along. The loss led to the creation of neonatal intensive care units across the United States.
As a member of Pampers’ Womb to World advisory board, Dr. Terri has been part of the P&G brand’s philanthropic efforts to improve maternal health outcomes. She created several resources to support parents during their pregnancy journey—including the top five questions to ask your doctor— and tips to help healthcare providers deliver more collaborative care. Pampers and March of Dimes have also partnered to train nearly 4,000 healthcare professionals on implicit bias, in addition to funding nursing scholarships for proven maternal health equity champions.
“We don’t actually understand how we’ve been exposed to stereotypes and how they’re embedded in the way we provide care and make judgments about patients,” Dr. Terri explains. “So, for Pampers to elevate conversations around Black and brown mothers… is really exciting.”
The brand has also amplified the voices of Black moms through Black Birth (2022) and Black Bone (2023), part of the Queen Collective film series, a partnership between P&G and Queen Latifah providing opportunities for Black women filmmakers.
Recently, after 20 years of caring for at-risk moms and premature babies, Dr. Terri also took on pediatric hospice care. “It’s very humbling,” she says. “Families have given me strength; I’m sometimes crying more than them. The families are like, ‘Doc, it’s going to be OK.’”
Her experiences have made her aware of the limits of even the most compassionate heart. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little girl, but that is just my profession,” she says. “It’s not the sum of who I am. We’re human beings… when you’re in the healthcare field, it’s very easy to be a human doing. So, the other lesson that [hospice] families have taught me is what really matters at the end of the day. It’s my family. It’s my children. It’s my community.”
Diversifying as she has— adding speaker and author (Full Circle Moments: What 20 Years in Neonatology Taught Me About Life, Love & Loss came out in 2022) to her resumé—Dr. Terri was warned she was endangering her career. “But I’m not in a box,” she objects. There are different seasons in life, and you get to choose where to leave your legacy, she says. “I’m hoping people understand if they’re reinventing themselves and they’re finding a new path, that they get to decide what that path is. You get to decide what difference you make every day.”
Committed to authenticity, Dr. Terri says she is “the same Dr. Terri in the classroom as I am in the patient room, as I am at church, as I am at home.. I’m learning that I’m a conduit, that life is short, and understanding that I get to reinvent my path every day… that it’s OK to cry, and it’s OK to take some time for myself, and it’s OK to come back and do it differently.
DR. TERRI MAJOR-KINCADE: MY WAYMAKERS
First, my mom and dad, Evelyn and Dixie Major Jr. They never painted a picture for me of what I couldn’t achieve, even though we didn’t have the most means: I mean, my great-aunt didn’t even have indoor plumbing. They were praying parents, and their beliefs elevated me.
Second, Dr. George Brown, [professor of biology] at Prairie View A&M University [in Prairie View, Texas], my premed advisor. The moment I got there, he poured into me to make sure I achieved my dream. He made sure opportunities came to me: I got to go to Cornell [University] one summer. I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Finally, my husband [Stephen Kincade]. I haven’t [gotten] here by myself, but with being married to a partner who is fine to let me shine. We have a son who has some learning challenges, and my husband was a stay-at-home dad for many years to support him. He was very OK with switching roles if it was necessary.
From an interview with Louis Carr