This article is the first in a series on maternal mortality.
“You’re in really bad shape, kid. I don’t know if you’re gonna live through the night. I’m going to do everything I can to save your life, but the truth is you might die.”
If Timoria McQueen Saba imagined the words she would hear in the moments after she gave birth, those likely weren’t among them. But then she started to bleed. The energy around her shifted; she felt the urgency and intensity in the room, and she could see it – reflected from the television monitor over her bed – in the faces of her care team. After her husband and newborn daughter were led from the room, she did, in fact, hear those words.
They were spoken by a surgeon called in after efforts to control the bleeding failed – emetic words that joined forces with her hemorrhaging and confusion and fear, and as she began to vomit, her eyelids felt heavy. She fought to keep them open, sensing that if she closed them they might never open again.
In 2018 alone, similar words perhaps were spoken to the 658 U.S. women who suffered maternal complications and whose eyes never did open again. This is the latest official maternal mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. Saba’s eyes, however, remained open through her birth trauma and through the PTSD that followed. A fierce advocate for maternal health, she shares her story often, as she did during a panel discussion at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ annual meeting in May 2019, in an effort to improve outcomes for other women and families.
But her story unfolded nearly a decade ago and those eyes still are seeing women die from childbirth. Despite her efforts and the efforts of countless other individuals and organizations working to improve maternal outcomes, the new CDC data show that the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any similarly wealthy industrialized nation.
“I cannot believe I’m still talking about this issue,” Ms. Saba told a standing-room-only crowd and her copanelists, and Charles S. Johnson IV, whose wife, Kira, died in 2016 during surgery for bleeding complications following the birth of their second child. “If all the people who I’d written to had just listened maybe once and tried to propel my message forward back then, Charles would be in a much better situation and so would his children.”
Mr. Johnson said that for 10 hours he and other family members pleaded for help for Kira, a healthy, vibrant women he described as “sunshine personified.”
She showed signs of postpartum bleeding after delivering a healthy baby boy by C-section, but a “STAT CT” order went unheeded for hours before she was finally taken for surgery.
“You’re walking down this corridor, you get to this point, these double doors open, and you just can’t go any further – and that was the last time I saw my wife alive,” he said. “When they took Kira back into the operating room, there were three-and-a-half liters of blood in her abdomen, and her heart stopped immediately.
Kira Johnson died April 13, 2016.
“I’m not here to tell you what I think, I’m here to tell you what I know, and that’s that Kira deserved so much better, and that Kira’s not alone, and that women all over this country deserve so much better.”