After Wife's Childbirth Death, Dad Speaks Up About ‘Silent’ Crisis Facing Black Moms

Johnson family
4Kira4Moms/Instagram

It's a bleak statistic we don't often hear about, one you might assume comes from a third world country, and surely not the United States. Each year, 700 US mothers die in childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and an alarming number of them are black women. If this news comes as a surprise, you're probably not alone. It's something Charles Johnson never knew much about until his own wife, Kira, died just hours after giving birth to their second child. Now, Johnson is suing the hospital where Kira died, and is sharing her story to raise awareness about the silent maternal mortality crisis facing black mothers across the nation.

  • Kira Johnson was just 39 when she went in for a routine C-section in 2016.

    She and her husband were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their second son, Langston, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Not long after the procedure, however, Charles said he noticed something wasn't right.

    “I can see the Foley catheter coming from Kira’s bedside begin to turn pink with blood,” Charles recently told CNN. “I just held her by her hands and said, ‘Please, look, my wife isn’t doing well.’ This woman looked me directly in my eyes and said, ‘Sir, your wife just isn’t a priority right now.’”

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  • Charles said his concerns about his wife's well-being didn't just carry on for a few agonizing minutes -- they went on for hours.

    "It wasn't until 12:30 a.m. the next morning that they finally made the decision to take Kira back to surgery," he said. "When they took Kira back to surgery, and he opened her up, there were three and a half liters of blood in her abdomen, from where she had been allowed to bleed internally for almost 10 hours ... "

    Soon after, Kira's heart stopped, and at 2:22 a.m., she was pronounced dead. 

    In that instant, Johnson's whole world fell apart.

    "For me, it's a feeling of loss coupled with being lost -- and understanding that there is no way that you can ever fill this void," Johnson told CNN. 

  • The devoted husband and now single father of two was not about to let his wife's death be in vain.

    "I didn't have the option of succumbing to my rage," he shared. "I had to focus on what I knew Kira would want me to do and expect me to do, which was making sure that my boys were OK above all things."

    Charles also happens to be the son of Glenda Hatchett, a well-known judge and the host of The Verdict with Judge Hatchett. 

    In 2017, he sued Cedars-Sinai for the death of his wife, though CNN reported that the case is still pending. Johnson has since become a staunch advocate for maternal health, and he is trying to educate the public on the underreported issue of maternal deaths.

    That same year, he also launched Kira4Moms, a nonprofit founded "with the mission to advocate for improved maternal health policies and regulations, to educate the public about the impact of maternal mortality in communities ... and promote the idea that maternal mortality should be viewed, and discussed as a human rights issue," the website stated.

  • Charles' advocacy also helped pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act in 2018.

    The legislation provides funding for state and local surveillance of maternal deaths, according to Congress.gov. It also provides states with helpful approaches they can take to improve overall maternal safety and outcomes, including specific tools and initiatives.

    "When these tools and these protocols are suggestions and not mandate, that's where the implicit bias and the arbitrary decision-making slips in," Charles told CNN. "So we're looking for additional oversight. We're looking for standards that are mandated and not just suggested for prenatal care. We're looking at standards for transparency and very importantly accountability."

  • According to the CDC, black mothers die in childbirth at three times the rate of white mothers in the US.

    "Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes," an NPR report noted.

    This isn't a new statistic, either. It's a puzzling reality that's been known for decades, and in some areas -- such as New York City, where black mothers are 12 times more likely to die in childbirth -- it continues to grow.

    The crucial question at the center of it all is why? And the truth is, the answer doesn't seem to come easily.

  • Many say that at its heart, the root cause of the problem is systemic racism.

    "We see that the causes of this huge disparity is due to institutionalized racism and discrimination that affect all women of color but especially black women," Yael Offer, a nurse and midwife for St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City, told Essence.

    Access to quality health care is part of the story, she said. But a growing number of reports in recent years have also shown that black women often feel disrespected and devalued by health care officials, which can lead to serious consequences in some cases.

  • It's not something that just happens to black mothers in low-income areas, either.

    In fact, it's something that even wealthy stars such as Serena Williams and Beyoncé have spoken out about.

    In an interview with Vogue back in 2018, Williams famously detailed the harrowing six-day ordeal that followed her daughter's C-section birth. It began when she had trouble breathing the day after she gave birth, and because of her history of blood clots, she requested that a CT scan be performed and that doctors put her on blood thinners, just to be safe. Williams said she had to push for the procedure, which ultimately proved her suspicion: She had blood clots in her leg.

    By then, though, she had suffered through many coughing fits because of her issues with breathing, and she popped open several of her C-section stitches. In the end, she almost bled to death, as blood flooded her abdomen, until doctors intervened.

  • Many of these mothers do not feel seen or heard in the delivery room, reports suggest.

    In 2017, ProPublica gathered the stories of 200 black mothers to try to get to the bottom of why this seems to happen.

    "Over and over, black women told of medical providers who equated being African-American with being poor, uneducated, noncompliant and unworthy," NPR reported. Many told stories of their pain not being taken seriously by doctors, which led to a delay in treatment.

     A separate study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also found that 33% of black women felt they had personally been discriminated against based on their race when going to either a doctor or a health clinic. Another 21% said they have avoided going to a doctor or seeking health care "out of concern they would be racially discriminated against."

  • In 2018, Johnson himself reflected on the doctors' treatment of his wife's condition, in the minutes before she died.

    "I was thinking if this was life-threatening, they'd be moving with a lot more ... urgency and even as I was walking with Kira on the way to the operating room and she's holding my hand, and saying 'Baby I'm scared. I'm scared,'" he told reporters in an interview captured by Now This News. "The doctor, his level of concern never elevated."

    For now, Johnson is continuing to fight for health care reform in his wife's name, in hopes that something changes -- something that can save the lives of more mothers just like Kira.