For Each Woman Who Dies in Childbirth in U.S., 70 Others Nearly Die 

May 10, 2018

Not everyone is aware of the alarming maternal mortality and injury situation in America. The U.S. has a higher rate of maternal death than any other developed country and, while maternal mortality ratios are shrinking in many countries, they’re rising here.

The statistics are frightening and a cause for deep concern. Why, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, are so many women dying in childbirth? Why does America rank second-to-last in maternal mortality out of 31 countries involved in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, coming in ahead of only Mexico?

Why is a woman giving birth in Canada three times less likely to die in childbirth?

The depth of the problem may just be beginning to be uncovered. NPR and ProPublica have spent more than a year investigating the issue and recently announced that childbirth deaths are simply one sliver of the situation. For every woman who dies from childbirth, there are 70 other women who come close to dying (something known as severe maternal morbidity or SMM).

Why does America continue to struggle with maternal mortality and near-death from childbirth? Almost everyone familiar with the topic agrees multiple factors are at play and that these deaths and near-deaths are preventable.

One part of the problem, it seems, is that hospitals may not be properly prepared to deal with complications and that doctors and nurses may ignore critical warning signs from patients for far too long.

Birth Injuries to Mother Have Life-Changing Consequences

The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health says approximately 80,000 women across the country nearly die from childbirth in a year. Eighty-thousand women who go through unimaginable pain, emotional toil and financial hardship, but tend to struggle silently.

Headlines instead often focus on the rising rates of maternal mortality, but the reality is that the rate for women nearly dying in childbirth is rising even faster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the number of women who nearly died in childbirth almost tripled between 1993 and 2014 (the last year for which data is available).

“An experience that we would hope and expect would be natural, beautiful, uplifting, becomes one that’s terrifying,” Peter Bernstein, director of the Maternal-Fetal Medicine division at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, told NPR. “Women can wind up losing their uterus and therefore becoming infertile. They can wind up with kidney problems. They can have heart attacks. They can have brain damage from all the blood that they’ve lost.”

The issues Bernstein outlined are only some among the long-lasting and devastating complications women can face.

Thousands of women wrote to NPR as the news organization conducted an investigation. Their stories were frightening and similar and detailed experiences of sensing something was wrong but not being able to take action or being able to get anyone to pay attention.

Childbirth Complications for Mother

Alicia Nichols, who gave birth at age 40, was one of those women. Nichols’ pregnancy was easy, but the birth of her daughter was difficult and ended with an emergency C-section. Four weeks later at her home, Nichols realized something was very wrong.

Standing up from a chair in her living room, Nichols discovered she had soaked the area with blood. She felt deeply that the bleeding was serious and called an ambulance, but at the E.R. was told it was natural postpartum bleeding.

“I felt that she was just dismissing me, annoyed, a new mother being paranoid of some blood. I felt like she was not listening at all,” Nichols said in her interview with NPR.

Nichols spoke with her obstetrician on multiple occasions after and was told it was likely menstrual bleeding, which Nichols disagreed with. Two months after giving birth to her daughter, she began bleeding again. Despite her regular doctor telling her she was fine, she went to his office and, as she stepped off the elevator, she began to hemorrhage.

She ended up losing almost half the blood in her body and coming close to death. Later she learned she suffered a complication called placental site vessel subinvolution (VSI). The condition could have been detected much earlier with the appropriate scan and then treated.

Instead, Nichols had an emergency hysterectomy and will be unable to give birth again. Should she choose to have more biological children, it would have to be through a surrogate at the estimated cost of $80,000.

Emergencies May Be Wrongfully Diagnosed by Doctors

Existing medical conditions, health factors, health insurance, and access to medical treatment are known to contribute to SMM, but these stories often involve other, avoidable factors. In many cases women describe knowing intuitively that something was wrong and even expressing this to their health care providers, only to be dismissed or told they were misinterpreting what was happening.

In other cases, the mothers themselves may be unaware of how dire their situations are. Complications like postpartum hemorrhaging, whose symptoms involve pain and blood (already expected by those giving birth), require medical staff who are keenly tuned into the patient to catch. Yet, NPR found in their investigation that hospitals can be ill-prepared and unorganized when it comes to these emergencies and the protocol for treating potential complications.

Tennis Star Serena Williams Nearly Died from Complications After Daughter’s Birth

Examples of unheard concerns post-childbirth include even famous names. Serena Williams recently spoke to Vogue about trying to convince a nurse of medical issues the day after she gave birth to her daughter.

Williams, who has had previous problems with blood clots, sensed she was having a pulmonary embolism and told a nurse what she believed and that she wanted a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin, which is a blood thinner. Williams made the urgency of the situation known, but the nurse told her it was probably her pain medication confusing her, and instead ordered an ultrasound of her legs. When that found nothing, the CT scan Williams had requested was performed, and they found several small blood clots in her lungs.

If the problem had been ignored for longer or Williams had not been so in tune with her body and medical history, the outcome could have been catastrophic.

Those Who Nearly Died in Childbirth File Birth Injury Lawsuit

Many families of mothers who have died in childbirth pursued legal action after discovering that a preventable outcome came to be because medical staff failed to pay proper attention or take action at the necessary times, but mothers who survive near-death experiences don’t always realize they are also entitled to legal rights. Medical negligence during childbirth lawsuits can be filed in cases where the mother suffers serious injuries.

Birth Injury Lawyer

If you or someone you love suffered lasting emotional, physical or financial harm because of a near-death experience related to childbirth, and you feel there may have been some wrongdoing that led to the situation, it is worth it to discuss your legal options. The attorneys at Cutter Law have vast experience in personal injury, medical malpractice, and pregnancy and birth specific conditions like preeclampsia. We can discuss your situation and your options with you and help you find the best possible path forward. You can contact us here.

Personal injury and civil justice attorney Brooks Cutter is a leading advocate for consumer justice and protecting the rights of the severely injured. Brooks founded Cutter Law, P.C., with offices in Sacramento and Oakland, with…
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