How can we give space to enslaved Black women of 1840s Alabama and moms who gave birth during the COVID-19 pandemic? By what innovative means can we learn from patients of the past and the present? Those who have encountered ACOG’s Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha Days of Recognition or the podcast Labor of Love will likely recognize Veronica Pimentel, MD, MS, FACOG, a maternal–fetal medicine specialist in Connecticut. For Dr. Pimentel, ensuring the health of all patients today requires centering stories of obstetrics and gynecology, including its harrowing origins, in current medical practice—and finding novel means of connecting patients and health care professionals across time, place, and circumstance.
In 2020, Dr. Pimentel was pregnant and working the front lines of the pandemic. The new virus was disproportionately harming people of color, and racial disparities in maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality were—and remain—acute. Beyond health care, the murder of George Floyd by police officers harshly illuminated systemic race discrimination. Dr. Pimentel, who directs research for the obstetrics and gynecology residency program at Trinity Health Of New England in Hartford, Connecticut, was examining what contribution she could make to racial justice. “I had been slowly learning that obstetrics was built on the bodies of Black enslaved women and that to move forward, we must understand our past,” Dr. Pimentel said.
She’s referencing the profound contributions to modern gynecology that Betsey, Lucy, Anarcha, and several other enslaved women and girls in Montgomery County, Alabama, made in the 1840s as Dr. J. Marion Sims subjected them to forced experiments without anesthesia to develop pioneering surgical interventions. This origin story and enduring medical racism, including the fallacy that Black people do not feel pain, contrast brutally with contemporary ethics and the goals of patient-centered, inclusive, culturally sensitive care.
Dr. Pimentel’s own life story—born in Cape Verde, West Africa, and raised in the United States—captures a similar dissonance. “My ancestors were enslaved,” she said. “I grew up bicultural and multilingual, applying an outsider’s lens from the inside.” Dr. Pimentel said that she had asked herself whose job it was to draw attention to the historical, social, political, and economic realities underlying ongoing outcome disparities in her profession. In a video for ACOG, she said, “It could no longer not be me.”
Mindful that the exploitation of enslaved women continues to benefit all obstetrician–gynecologists, Dr. Pimentel created a petition calling for ACOG to observe the Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha Days of Recognition to recognize their forced sacrifice. In 2021, ACOG established this annual observance on February 28 and March 1, connecting Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Dr. Pimentel’s conversation with historian Deirdre Cooper Owens, PhD, explores these themes.
Centering medicine’s past in medicine’s present is similarly key to activism in Montgomery, Alabama. There, the building in which Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha were dehumanized in the service of medicine is being redeveloped as the Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Museum and Clinic. The facility will provide care for uninsured women and education about the history of obstetrics and gynecology. Its lower level, a museum, is already open to visitors. “Visiting the building was a pilgrimage for me, a haunting experience,” said Dr. Pimentel, who is involved in the project.
At home—statewide and locally—Dr. Pimentel works to improve outcomes for marginalized patients. On Connecticut’s Maternal-Child Health Subcommittee, she advocated for extending Medicaid beyond 12 months postpartum, achieved in 2022; she also serves on that subcommittee’s Breastfeeding Taskforce. Her goals at Trinity Health Of New England, where she directs the Diabetes in Pregnancy Program, include optimizing postpartum care during patients’ year of insurance coverage. She asked, “What can we do to make sure that our postpartum patients have access to the care they need, so they can have a long life with their child or, if they return to us pregnant, they’re in better health than the first time?”
As host of the ACOG podcast Labor of Love, Dr. Pimentel shares patients’ and professionals’ stories of pregnancy, labor, and health during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. “We teach a lot at the bedside,” she said. “As physicians, we have to find different ways to reach our patients.” It’s a challenge that all physicians share. As Dr. Pimentel asked, “Why not you?”
Dr. Pimentel is a practicing maternal–fetal medicine specialist at Trinity Health Of New England, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University, and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Find her on Instagram @drvero4moms.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions observing Women in Medicine Month reflect experiences of individual ACOG members and do not represent official organizational opinions of ACOG.