Silicon Valley congressman tackles Black maternal mortalities
O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, which is owned by Santa Clara County, is pictured in this file photo.

    Washington, D.C.—Charles Johnson said he quickly notified hospital staff when his wife’s catheter turned pink with blood. His wife, Kira Johnson, had just given birth to their second son during a scheduled cesarean section at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

    Staff examined his wife and ordered a CT scan, he said, but hours passed and no one performed the procedure.

    “My wife was shivering uncontrollably because she was losing so much blood,” said Johnson, who was speaking during a recent congressional hearing examining the high rate of maternal mortality among Black women. “… I was begging and pleading, please do something, help her.”

    But Johnson told legislators his wife didn’t receive proper medical attention for 10 hours—and by then it was too late. Kira, a Black woman, died from massive internal bleeding.

    Kira Johnson is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Johnson family.

    “It was not my wife’s race that was a risk factor; she did everything right,” said Johnson. “It was racism that was the risk factor.”

    Black mothers in the U.S. are about three times more likely than white mothers to die from childbirth-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They further experience higher rates of miscarriage and infant loss. Native Americans are also more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

    Several medical experts testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last week and urged lawmakers to address this growing crisis. Other witnesses, like Johnson and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), shared their personal experiences.

    In an interview with San José Spotlight, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) said all the testimonies were deeply moving.

    “I knew about the issue from a statistics perspective and a theoretical perspective, but the hearing brought home to me how much this impacts Black women’s lives,” he said. “It’s not even a class issue. It affects people who are members of Congress.”

    The congressman, who co-sponsored the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, said its passage is crucial.

    The legislative package consists of a dozen bills aiming to prevent maternal mortalities. It would provide funding for further research, increase telehealth services for those in underserved communities and establish grants to help diversify the perinatal workforce, including doulas and midwives. It would also invest in community-based health organizations that work to promote equity and improve maternal health outcomes.

    “It’s something that I’m passionate about,” said Khanna, who sits on the committee. “I have been a lead sponsor on the bill and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we get this into law.”

    Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna is pictured in this file photo.

    More than 200 organizations have endorsed the bill, including the NAACP, Johnson & Johnson and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

    Dr. Tamika Auguste, who submitted a written testimony to the committee on behalf of the ACOG, told legislators many health disparities are linked to systemic inequities in income, housing or education. But she explained that wasn’t the full story.

    “Although some inequities diminish after taking these factors into account, many remain because of factors at the patient, health care system and practitioner level,” she wrote. “Racism and implicit bias on the part of health care professionals contributes to racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes.”

    When it comes to maternal health, the U.S. lags behind other similarly developed nations. The CDC found approximately 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or delivery.

    Although the national maternal mortality rate has risen in recent decades, California has worked to reverse that trend. The state saw maternal mortality decline by 55% between 2006 to 2013, according to the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative.

    Rev. Jeff Moore, the president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, said a push to improve maternal health care is long overdue. The death rate of Black women during pregnancy is especially striking, he said, and far more work needs to be done to protect mothers and babies.

    “We need to have more Black and brown doctors, more doctors who look like them and specialize in this type of treatment,” he said. “More of an effort needs to be made to teach and train Black physicians to be in these communities.”

    Czarina Bowers would also love to see more diversity among the doulas and midwives in the South Bay area. Bowers, the co-founder of Silicon Valley Doulas, is a certified doula and lactation counselor.

    “That would be fantastic for the diverse community that we live in,” she said.

    Bowers added she has seen racial biases “in action” while working as a doula.

    “We have had clients who told providers they were in pain and they were not believed,” she said. “As a doula, I had to step in and say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong here and this needs attention.’”

    Although it’s important to examine data while working to find solutions, Johnson reminded legislators last week that there are people and families behind those numbers.

    “There is no statistic that can quantify what it is like to tell an 18-month old that his mommy is never coming home,” he said.

    Kira, who died in 2016, was an entrepreneur who ran marathons and spoke five languages. Her husband said she had a sunny personality and was thrilled to learn she was expecting a second child. But Johnson said their kids would grow up without a mother because his wife gave birth in a country that didn’t value her.

    “We must and we can do better,” he said.

    Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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