How this hospital hopes to save mothers in childbirth

Review every maternal death

For D’Alton, who as co-chair of New York’s Safe Motherhood Initiative developed protocols for managing maternal emergencies, a review process for every maternal death in the U.S. is even more critical to lowering America’s maternal mortality rate.

“I don’t believe we are going to be able to fix the problems until we know the reasons behind them,” says D’Alton, who believes there would be a decline in maternal deaths if the U.S. followed the lead of European countries.

“In the UK, since the 50s, there is a confidential inquiry into every single maternal death and then when the answers or the reasons for those maternal deaths are identified, changes in practice are put into place to prevent those occurring in the future,” says D’Alton. “So we are now asking for a similar system that has been in the UK since 1950. We have a lot of work to do to catch up.”

How this hospital hopes to save mothers in childbirth
How this hospital hopes to save mothers in childbirth

That’s what California has been trying to do over the past few years.

Researchers and doctors there decided to grapple with the issue of maternal deaths and the state has managed to cut its mortality rate by 55 percent, says Dr. Rashmi Rao, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“California has one of the lowest mortality rates in the country,” Rao says. “It’s similar to the rate in Canada, which is about seven per 100,000. Other countries have reduced their maternal mortality rate by standardizing the process.”

In California, experts studied the leading causes of maternal death. They learned what factors led to deaths and they came up with a set of standardized guidelines for diagnosing and treating women who might be in danger.

If those guidelines had been followed, Charles Johnson’s wife, Kira, might still be alive. Two hours after the family’s second son was born via C-section in a Los Angeles hospital, Charles noticed a pink tinge developing in her catheter.

‘Watched her bleed to death’

Worried Kira might be bleeding internally, he called for help. Blood work showed something was wrong, but the CT scan doctors promised would be done never was. As hours ticked by and Kira started to lose color and became chilled, Johnson got scared.

Despite transfusions, Kira became even paler and started to shiver. Ten hours after Kira had given birth to her son Langston, doctors rushed her back to the operating room. Thirty minutes later, Johnson was told his wife had died.

Image: Kira Johnson
Kira Johnson with her newborn son, Langston.Courtesy of Charles Johnson

“I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” he says. “I looked around the waiting room watching my world fall apart.”

Johnson later learned that Kira’s surgeon had nicked her bladder during the C-section. During all those hours of waiting, “I literally had watched her bleed to death,” Johnson says.

The guidelines list symptoms, as well as risk factors for bleeding. They also suggest ways hospitals can prepare for hemorrhages, like having a cart dedicated to treating this emergency.

“You want a cart with all the things you might need already pre-supplied so you’re not running all over doing a search mission,” says Dr. William Grobman, a professor and vice chair for clinical operations in obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Image: Kira Johnson
Within two hours of her scheduled C-section, Kira Johnson, a healthy 39-year-old mother, began to experience complications. Courtesy of Charles Johnson

Standardization can save lives, Grobman says. “You want protocols, a systems approach not just an individual ad hoc approach,” he explains. “There are a million and one emergencies. The key is in figuring out who needs care right away.”

New York State is also working on a system that will cut back on maternal deaths by standardizing diagnosis and treatment of the leading causes of death in new moms: a deadly form of high blood pressure called preeclampsia, hemorrhage, and fetal embolisms, which are pregnancy related particles that get into the bloodstream and can block arteries to the heart.

“We have an initiative here in the state called the Safe Motherhood initiative,” D’Alton says. “In our state there are 126 hospitals that deliver babies and 117 of those are using the protocols that we have all collectively developed to treat hypertension, hemorrhage in pregnancy and to prevent embolisms.”

Ryan Hanson now runs the Tara Hanson Foundation to increase awareness of maternal health, while raising 7-year-old Brandon.

“Maternal health is not just a family issue, it’s almost a community issue,” says Ryan. “Tara’s death has meaning, to save other women’s lives.”

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