Kira Dixon Johnson was 39 when she died on the operating table at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in April 2016. Hours before, she had given birth by a scheduled cesarean section to her second son, Langston.
While in recovery, her husband noticed that something wasn’t right with his wife, then observed that her Foley catheter had begun to turn pink from blood. When he alerted the nurses, he says they replied, “Sir, your wife just isn’t a priority right now.”
Charles Johnson claims the staff ignored him and his concerns for hours as his wife suffered.
“When they took Kira back to surgery and opened her up, there were 3½ liters of blood in her abdomen from where she’d been allowed to bleed internally for almost 10 hours. Her heart stopped immediately,” Johnson testified to Congress in September 2018.
“We are in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis that isn’t just shameful for American standards. It’s shameful on a global scale,” he said adding that doctors later determined that her bladder had been nicked and the resulting internal bleeding had been discovered too late.
Johnson has since leveled a lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai. He’s also launched a nonprofit in honor of his deceased wife, “4Kira4Moms,” which brings attention to the startling statistics of Black maternal mortality in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications than white women. The U.S. remains the only developed country with a rising death rate for pregnant or new mothers writes the Lancet Medical Journal. And public health experts say this crisis isn’t just affecting poor or sick mothers but also healthy, college-educated Black women like Kira Johnson.
“A well-educated, African-American woman with more than a high school education has a fivefold risk of death compared to a white woman with less than a high school education,” Wanda Barfield, CDC director of the Division of Reproductive Health, said to CNN.
But perhaps there’s hope for life-saving change on the horizon.
Rep. Alma Adams, co-founder and co-chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, recently closed Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17) with a “momnibus” — legislation specifically targeting Black maternal health matters including the Kira Johnson Act.
“Kira is one of the many moms who we lost too soon. A mistake made during her delivery went unaddressed for several hours and ultimately cost Kira her life,” Adams said. “This story hits close to home because it is so common in our community — so common, in fact, that I almost lost my daughter after she gave birth because her doctors wouldn’t listen.”
Harris says this issue needs congressional attention now more than ever.
“The potential ramifications that could come with giving birth during the coronavirus pandemic — specifically one that’s disproportionately impacting African Americans — is of particular concern to Black women who were already facing a maternal health crisis in our country,” she said. “We must continue in the fight to ensure Black women are taken seriously when they speak about their health concerns and remove disparities and implicit bias from our health care system.”