Sadly, women do still die in childbirth in America

Claycord has reported some very sad news: that a 36-year-old Clayton Valley High graduate died earlier this week, 10 days after experiencing life-threatening complications while giving birth to a baby daughter.  Maya Johnson had been on life support at Contra Costa County Hospital in Martinez since April 3. Her daughter Elisha was last reported to be in Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where she was being treated for an infection.

Not long ago, I would have read this news and been shocked: women don’t die in childbirth anymore do they? This is the United States and the 21st century–not the 1800s or the early part of the 20th century.

It used to be that women had every reason to fear that childbirth could be dangerous. In 1900, maternal mortality was about 65 times higher than it is today. Then came the advent such modern medical strategies as the use of antiobiotics and blood transfusions in the mid-1930s. Those dramatically reduced the number of women being injured or dying in childbirth.

Unfortunately, the United States still lags in maternal safety. In 2008, there were 17 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States, lower than many developing nations in Africa and Central Asia, but higher than many industrialized countries around the work.  In 2011, the United Nations placed the United States 50th in the world for maternal mortality rates, with the leading causes of U.S. maternal deaths being hemorrhage, pregnancy-related hypertensive disorders, infection, thrombotic pulmonary embolism, cardiomyopathy and cardiovascular conditions.

”We could be doing a lot better, considering the resources we have.” So says Audrey Lyndon, an associate professor at UCSF’s School of Nursing. She is nationally recognized for her work demonstrating how communication failures contribute to preventable adverse events in perinatal care. She also works on  developing strategies to improve safety on labor and delivery units.

I interviewed her earlier this year for the School of Nursing’s online magazine. Working on the article helped me realize that, yes, sadly, women do still die in childbirth in the United States.

As I reported, most women go to hospitals expecting to safely deliver a healthy baby, because, after all, birth is one of the most natural things in the world. As Lyndon told me, birth “usually works best if we let it evolve and not get in the way.” Unfortunately, once in a while the unpredictable happens — the mother’s blood pressure spikes, infection sets in, or the baby goes into distress — and missed opportunities can lead to devastating consequences.

A national study showed that communication issues topped the list of root causes of cases of perinatal deaths, occurring in 72 percent of all cases. Lyndon found complex reasons for why communication breaks down on labor and delivery units, including hierarchical roles, lack of administrative support, resource issues, fatique and stress among team members and personality differences.

It hasn’t been publicized why Maya Johnson needed the emergency c-section. In addition to her new baby Elisha, she leaves behind a husband and two other children. A celebration of Maya Johnson’s life is scheduled to take place 11 a.m. Monday at the New Hope International Church, 2120 Olivera Court, Concord.

David Johnson’s co-workers at West Coast Fixtures/R3 Builders in Benicia have created a website to raise funds to help the family financially during this time.

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