Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender and mother of twins who’s running for governor of Virginia this year, was trying to deliver a stump speech via Zoom from her home on Thursday night when one of her 3-year-old sons burst into the room, flicked off the lights and ran off cackling. “It’s 8 o’clock, I’m trying to get the crowd riled up virtually, and suddenly the whole room is dark,” she tells me in a Zoom interview the next morning. “I jumped up from the table trying not to fuss, trying to find the light switch. This is my life.”
She isn’t complaining, though—the fact that she and the twins all even survived to get to this point is a small miracle. She is sharing with ELLE for the first time her harrowing pregnancy story, in which she almost died after giving birth because, as is the case for many Black women, white doctors and nurses downplayed and dismissed her excruciating postpartum pain. That, combined with her experience growing up poor and without health care in rural Virginia, has motivated her run to be the first Black woman governor in American history. “When people say identity politics don’t matter, what they’re also saying is that other people’s lived experiences don’t matter,” she says.
Carroll Foy was raised by her grandparents in Petersburg, Virginia, where nearly a third of residents live at or below the poverty line. After her grandmother, a health care worker at a mental health hospital, had a stroke and became a quadriplegic, Carroll Foy recalls sitting at the dining room table with her aunt trying to decide if they should pay the mortgage that month or pay for the medications keeping her grandmother alive. “We literally had to take her stroke medications and cut them in half,” she says. “I just could not believe that we had to make that type of decision for a woman who’s dedicated her whole life to helping other people. That’s when that fire just got inside me, and I was like, I’m gonna make sure nobody has to make these kinds of decisions, no one has to struggle the way we struggle.”
The fight was on. In 2003, Carroll Foy became one of the first women to graduate from Virginia Military Institute, where she shaved her head because all the men had to do it. She went on to graduate from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and became a court appointed attorney, defending those who couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. Then in 2017, after Donald Trump was elected president, Carroll Foy decided to make her way into public office.
During her campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates, she found out she was pregnant with twins—and her body started to suffer. “No one talks about how scary it is to be pregnant and to give birth,” she says. “They only talk about the wonderful things.”
It was a very rough and painful pregnancy. The twins tried to come out in the second trimester, before they would’ve survived. This was just days before the June 5 primary, which went to a runoff after she won by 10 votes. The doctors put Carroll Foy on bedrest in the hospital, where she found herself making campaign calls and managing a runoff election while hanging upside down to keep from going into labor. “My feet couldn’t hit the ground. I couldn’t go to the bathroom; I had a catheter. My husband had to wash me from the bed,” she says. “They literally said my feet could not touch the floor.”
About four weeks later, she gave birth to the twins, Alex and Xander, via C-section at 22 weeks. They were one-and-a-half pounds each and barely survived.
After the birth, rather than recovering, her physical pain started to intensify. “Even after I came home, I was in disabling pain. I was in the fetal position. It was so bad it would bring tears to my eyes. I didn’t think this was normal,” she says. “But I was constantly told by the nurses, ‘It’s common, this is fine.’ It was swept under the rug, a little dismissed.”
After a few days, Carroll Foy’s husband, Jeff, insisted on taking her to the emergency room. There, the doctors admitted her immediately and discovered a potentially fatal postpartum complication. “I had a serious medical condition that would have cost me my life had I stayed home and untreated a few more days,” she says, declining to elaborate on her condition given the personal nature of the condition.
Carroll Foy feels strongly that her pain was dismissed because she’s a Black woman. It’s a well-documented phenomenon: doctors dismissing the pain of Black patients in general due to racial biases. But this is especially true for pregnant and postpartum Black women, who are 243 percent more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related conditions than white women. And it cuts across the socioeconomic spectrum; even wealthy and famous Black women, like Serena Williams, have harrowing stories of being ignored and dismissed by medical providers.
“I read Serena’s story and I said to my husband, ‘Look, Jeff, the same thing happened to Serena!’” Carroll Foy says. “Some people think it’s just less educated women who don’t know how to advocate for themselves, or a money thing, and that’s not true.”
“Black women in Virginia are four times more likely to die during childbirth and postpartum because we are not seen, because we are not heard, and we are not believed,” she continues. “It’s costing Black and brown women our lives.”
Carroll Foy will release her official health care plan this week, which aims to address some of the health care struggles she’s experienced firsthand. She wants to ensure doulas are covered by Medicaid, so low-income black mothers who “don’t have a Jeff Foy” will always have someone advocating for them. She wants to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to ensure no one has to choose between buying life-saving medication and paying their rent. She also supports racial bias training for medical professionals, and efforts to increase diversity at Virginia’s medical schools. Finally, she wants to create mobile health clinics to serve the state’s rural communities.
Carroll Foy believes she can execute these ideas for Virginia because she knows how to govern—she was behind several pieces of groundbreaking legislation as a delegate, including making Virginia the 38th state to finally ratify the decades-old Equal Rights Amendment. She also passed bills to address the disproportionate Black maternal mortality rate and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, as well as legislation barring schools from discriminating against Black and Muslim children because of their hairstyles or hijabs.
“Those are the types of things that are pushed and passed when you have Black women in the room,” Carroll Foy says. “We can’t just have bills and budgets written for them, we have to have bills and budgets written by them, because we bring that lived experience and understanding of collateral consequences.”
Carroll Foy is currently running in the Democratic primary against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Lee Carter. It’s a challenging race, with McAuliffe having the most name recognition and raising the most money. But Carroll Foy is widely considered to be the most progressive candidate, boasting endorsements from multiple labor unions and groups like Democracy for America.
The contrast between Carroll Foy and McAuliffe, in terms of life experience, is stark. McAuliffe wrote in his 2007 book that he once left his wife in the delivery room, hours before her labor, to attend a party at The Washington Post. While Carroll Foy literally campaigned while hanging upside down in the delivery room, and almost died because the doctors didn’t take her pain seriously. She says those personal stories are in no small part why she’s the most qualified for the job. “Those experiences have broadened my shoulders and stiffened my back to be able to carry the weight of the Commonwealth,” Carroll Foy says. “I am battle tested.”
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