“Everything’s fine,” the nurses assured Ryan Hansen when his wife Tara reported flu-like symptoms after giving birth to their first child, Brandon, in March 2011. When she fainted, Ryan had to lift her off the hospital room floor and return her to the bed. Still, the nurses insisted she was “just getting settled.”
He had no reason not to take their word for it. Tara was a healthy, 29-year-old who’d had an optimal pregnancy, never missed a doctor’s appointment and read every mom-to-be book she could. Despite her feeling exhausted, sore and repeatedly collapsing after giving birth, Hansen returned with Tara and Brandon to their home in New Jersey to begin what was supposed to be the happiest time of their lives.
“Holy shit what’s going on here?!?!?,” Hansen tells me of his reaction to Tara continuing to faint at home and feeling progressively worse. When she woke up the second morning back from the hospital complaining that something was “absolutely wrong,” Hansen left Brandon with family members and rushed Tara to the emergency room. There, doctors finally identified an infection from a third-degree tear near her vagina that had gone unnoticed. But it was too late. Heavy antibiotics proved insufficient, and Tara died six days later.
Hansen was understandably devastated. “Mostly it was complete sadness of losing my best friend,” he recalls. “I thought there was complacency on the part of the hospital because they were delivering babies constantly and didn’t take the time to hear what Tara had to say. That was incredibly frustrating.”
Sadly, Hansen is one of thousands of men who have lost their partners during childbirth over the last 20 years. In fact, more women die in the U.S. from pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. With an estimated 26.4 deaths for every 100,000 live births, the country’s maternal mortality rate dwarfs that of Canada (7.3) and Western Europe (7.2). Not to mention, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Austria, all of which hover around 4.0.
Horrified by the numbers and determined to help improve the way health-care providers communicate with patients, in 2012, Hansen launched The Tara Hansen Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of maternal health awareness. Doing so was cathartic, he says, because he could honor Tara, a lifelong teacher, by educating the public about the importance of maternal health and safety.
Some, however — like Craig McKnight, an OB/GYN in New London, Connecticut, who has delivered roughly 3,000 babies over a 22-year career without any maternal deaths — take issue with the data. In the U.S., he notes, a maternal death is often considered to be any fatality during pregnancy and up to the first year past delivery, while in the rest of the world, they’re limited to 42 days. “So it’s like one country reporting the weather in Fahrenheit and another in Centigrade,” he explains.
“That’s very true,” agrees Leslee Jaeger, an OB/GYN in Minnesota. “We’re often not comparing apples to apples. In some states, deaths in the first year after childbirth can be attributed to a motor vehicle accident, a suicide, a homicide or any number of things.”
Still, more women die of childbirth-related causes in the U.S. than in Iran (20.8 per 100,000 live births), Lebanon (15.3), Turkey (15.8), China (17.7) and Puerto Rico (15.1). A six-month investigation on maternal mortality in the U.S by NPR and ProPublica in 2017 revealed the U.S. to be the only developed nation in the world where the rate of women dying during childbirth has risen over the last 30 years, noting many hospitals are “woefully unprepared” for a maternal emergency.
As was the case for Arnold Goodman, whose wife Deborah died in childbirth on October 1, 1994, resulting from catastrophic complications caused by placenta accreta, (i.e., when the placenta attaches too deeply in the uterus). “The hospital had no clue and tried to perform a dilation and curettage to remove the placenta,” he tells me, adding that Deborah bled out “many times over” and became brain dead. Like Hansen, Goodman was left to raise his surviving son alone, while never forgiving the hospital. (He eventually settled with them for an undisclosed amount, though the doctors never admitted any wrongdoing.) “Raising my son has been like a parallel universe where it’s just the two of us,” he says. “I can’t help but wonder how it should have been with all of us.”
Instead, Goodman spent decades doing research and speaking with “dozens and dozens of doctors all over the country” about the risks of placenta accreta. After sending a report to the National Institutes of Health, they convened a conference on postpartum hemorrhaging of placenta accreta, at which Goodman was invited to speak. He’s attempted to engage the political community about these risks, too, meeting with his congress people, a senator and even Hillary Clinton.
And yet, incidents of placenta accreta have quadrupled since the 1980s, from 1 in 1,250 births to 1 in 272 births, per the National Accreta Foundation. “It blows my mind that it’s this common, and nobody knows about it,” says Kristen Terlizzi, a maternal health and patient safety advocate. Among the largest risk factors for placenta accreta, she tells me, is a previous cesarean section, which she had while giving birth to her first child in 2012. When she got pregnant for the second time, her son’s placenta ended up attaching over the uterine scar in her uterus. It was the most severe form of placenta accreta, too — placenta percreta, in which the placenta penetrates the uterine wall and invades the mother’s internal organs. Terlizzi believes her life was saved only when she moved to a hospital specializing in placenta accreta, something many women are unable to do.
After a woman has one C-section, there’s an 88-percent chance she’ll have another, Terlizzi explains, and multiple occurrences result in a significant risk of developing accreta. “Roughly half of all C-sections in the U.S. are unnecessary,” she contends, a sentiment echoed by Goodman. “I’ve read that people [have C-sections] for convenience,” he says. “They don’t want to go through labor so it’s kind of like, ‘I have a golf appointment this afternoon, a dentist appointment tomorrow afternoon and a C-section on Friday.’”
Similarly distressing: A handful of states, including Texas, don’t recognize an unmarried father before they’ve either been acknowledged by the mother or confirmed by a DNA test — meaning they can’t be in the delivery room otherwise. Such was the case for Juan (a pseudonym), a 33-year-old mailman in El Paso. His fiancée, Lacy (also a pseudonym), was the granddaughter of the pastor at Juan’s conservative Christian family church. When they found out Lacy was pregnant, the pastor and Lacy’s mom kicked Juan out of the church and attempted to bribe her to break up with him by offering to pay off her student loans and buy a house for her and the baby. “They thought I was going to ruin her life,” he tells me.
A month before her due date, Lacy asked Juan if he minded if her mom was with her in the delivery room instead of him, as her mom was in poor health and likely wouldn’t be alive to witness a second birth. Juan completely understood, but on March 6, 2018, he grew anxious in the waiting room as the hours went by. He’d been texting Lacy and sending messages to her on every platform they’d ever used — WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram DM. He also sent individual and group texts to her mom and grandparents. He finally heard back at 9 p.m. the next day from her mom, who asked him to meet her husband the following morning. When he did, he was coldly informed that Lacy had passed away during labor.
Demographically speaking, pregnancy is three to four times more likely to kill black women than non-Hispanic white women — women like Kira, the wife of 38-year-old Charles Johnson IV, who is, incidentally, the son of TV’s Judge Hatchett. On April 11, 2016, the night before Kira’s scheduled C-section at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A., the expectant mother decided she wanted to dress up for her baby’s big arrival. “I remember her combing her hair, looking in the mirror and saying, ‘You know what? I want to be really pretty for Langston,’” Johnson told People magazine in 2017.
After her delivery at 2:30 p.m. on April 12th, Kira spent a joyous hour with her newborn and introduced him to his 19-month-old brother, Charles Johnson V. Soon thereafter, however, Kira began losing color, turned groggy and complained of excruciating abdominal pain, which was first dismissed by her medical team. (Johnson also noticed blood in her catheter.) Later that night, surgery revealed she was experiencing massive internal bleeding caused by a lacerated bladder during her C-section.
She died at 2:22 a.m.
Johnson filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai, claiming that the staff there didn’t respond to Kira’s symptoms or her bleeding in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, he and his mother went on to lobby Congress in support of the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, which was unanimously passed in December and provided $60 million to fund maternal health review committees in all 50 states to collect data on what’s killing women in the U.S. during (or after) childbirth.
Monifa Bandele, a senior vice president at MomsRising, a national women’s rights organization dedicated to ending pregnancy discrimination, says Kira’s story of being dismissed by medical personnel — as well as that of Serena Williams, who was ignored during childbirth after becoming short-of-breath and alerting nurses to her prior struggles with a pulmonary embolism — isn’t an outlier, but the norm. “We point a lot to Serena’s story because this is a very well-known woman with enormous resources who almost died because she was being ignored during childbirth,” Bandele explains. As such, she believes many black women don’t stand a chance at combating the inherent racism and implicit bias in the American medical system. She worries, too, that proposed abortion legislation in states like Alabama and Georgia will only make things worse. “What [the legislation is] specifically doing is closing down clinics that don’t just perform abortion, they also give prenatal care to people who can’t go other places: low-income women. This is trauma on top of trauma.”
As for the men I spoke to for this piece, they’ve moved on. There really was no other choice: Their kids needed them more than ever. Goodman’s son, who is now 24, attended college and graduate school and has begun a career. Still, Goodman says, “It’s been a long time, but I think about Deborah’s passing every day.” Juan’s twin boys just celebrated their first birthday — a bittersweet day since it was also the anniversary of Lacy’s death. “They started to walk about six weeks ago,” he says, and are vocalizing more and more, too.” Hansen remarried and has two children with his second wife. Brandon, in the meantime, turned eight in March and “loves sports, schoolwork and is just a wonderful little man,” he reports.
“He looks absolutely nothing like me, which is good for him because his mother was a beautiful woman,” Hansen continues. “Looking at him is always a nice reminder of her.”