"We walked in for what we expected to be the happiest day of our life. And we walked straight into a nightmare," Charles Johnson V recently told 11alive, an NBC affiliate, on Oct. 19.
Johnson was describing the day he unexpectedly lost his wife, two years ago, during childbirth. Now he’s an advocate for better maternal health care, particularly for black women in the US, and speaking out about pregnancy-related deaths.
Kira Johnson waited seven hours for emergency medical assistance in extreme pain, shaking and crying, according to 11alive. She eventually died from post-childbirth complications, and although her death is devastatingly personal to her family, her story is tragically common.
More women die from pregnancy-related complications in the US than any other developed country, and the US is the only developed country where the mortality rate has been increasing, according to an investigation by NPR and ProPublica. For every 100,000 births in the US, 26 mothers died in 2015 according to the Global Burden of Disease Study. This is compared to nine in the UK, seven in Canada, and four in Sweden, Italy, and Denmark.
But these health risks are not felt equally, throughout the US, black women are far more likely to die from childbirth than white women.
Black women are three to four more times more likely to die during childbirth compared to white women, according to the CDC. This racial disparity gap is wider today than it was in 1850, which was fifteen years before the end of slavery and over 100 years before the Civil Rights Movement.
Black women are 49% more likely to have a premature birth than white mothers, and white infants are twice as likely to live to see their first birthday than black babies.
And while poverty is a major factor in these stastics — black women living in poverty face economic barriers that can prevent them from getting proper medical care, according to NPR — it's far from the only factor at play. Black women are also more likely to be uninsured and start using Medicaid during their pregnancy. This causes them to receive prenatal care later and to lose medical coverage after the delivery.
But the problem isn't just access to medical care, it's also the quality of care black women receive. Influential black women, from Serena Williams to Beyoncé, have recently spoken out about how racial bias affects the medical care they receive.
A black woman with an advanced degree is still more likely to have a miscarriage or infant death than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education. Thirty-three percent of black women feel like they have been discrimiated against because of their race when visiting a doctor or health clinic, and 21% have avoided seeking medical care because they fear they will be discriminated against.
Even women with access to the most elite health care face challenges.
Williams spoke out about how she had to tell her doctors about a blood clot that they missed, possibly saving her own life in the process. She experienced a pulmonary embolism, a large hematoma in her abdomen, and a ripped C-section wound that tore as the blood clot caused her to cough. She spent six weeks on bed rest to recover.
Beyoncé revealed in Vogue that she also experienced pregnancy complications. She was put on bed rest for over a month before delivering her twins and then had to have an emergency C-section because she and her children’s health were in jeopardy.
She suffered from preeclampsia, “a pregnancy complication that involves high blood pressure and protein in the urine.” While the condition affects only about 3.4% of pregnancies, it is 60% more common in African American women than white women. Black women in the US have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity which can affect pregnancy mortality, but hospitals in areas with high African American populations are often of a lower quality than those in white areas and may be less equipped to deal with these conditions.
This year, Charles Johnson filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai, the hospital where his wife passed away. He claims that the staff did not respond to Kira’s condition in a timely manner.
The hospital responded in a statement saying “Cedars-Sinai strongly agrees with Mr. Johnson and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that no mother should die giving birth. Based on our findings, we make any changes that are needed so that we can continue to provide the highest quality care to our patients.”
Johnson and his mother have created 4Kira4Moms a campaign that advocates for better health care for mothers. They’re also lobbying for new legislation to improve the review process for pregnancy-related deaths and complications.