Highlighting Black Maternal Health Week: The Story of Kira Johnson and the Call for Awareness
By Dr. Mojirayo A. Sarumi, Outpatient Medical Director, Maternal Fetal Medicine, CHRISTUS Trinity Clinic - Tyler
If you are not familiar with the story of Kira Dixon Johnson, you should remedy that as soon as possible.
Johnson was a 39-year-old African American pilot and race car driver who passed away in 2016, hours after giving birth to her second child via repeat cesarean section. At the time of her death, it was discovered that she had suffered a postpartum hemorrhage, in addition to a bladder injury.
Since then, her family has been outspoken about the tragic events surrounding her passing and their subsequent experiences. Her husband, Charles Johnson IV recounted the desperate plea for help he made hours before medical assistance finally arrived during a conference that I attended earlier this year.
Through her husband’s moving words, I was able to bear witness to the agony Kira endured during her last hours. Her heartbreaking story (video and graphic) will forever be seared into my memory. Unfortunately, today her story is but one example of the devastation that is all too common among women of color.
Women of Color and Healthcare Inequality
Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth when compared with their White counterparts according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, Native American women are more than twice as likely as White women to die from pregnancy-related causes.
Approximately sixty percent of maternal deaths are preventable. Race itself is not a health risk; rather it is the underlying racism, the associated biases, and the numerous disparities that arise as a result that put minoritized women at risk.
Women of color are more likely to experience negligence as they seek to care for their medical needs. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, this negligence is regardless of socioeconomic status due to environmental, social, structural, and historical inequalities. These abject disproportions have shaped healthcare exposure and access through an unbalanced distribution of resources.
Although racism’s impact on the health of minoritized women is difficult to quantify, the effect of it has been evident and the solution to it is imperative.
Initiatives Taking Action
As a black woman, and a healthcare provider who serves women exclusively, it gives me great joy to learn about initiatives from health organizations, legislators, and nonprofit organizations to address this problem in our society.
These include 4Kira4Moms, a foundation established by Charles Johnson IV in response to his experience, and the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a Black women-led cross-sectoral organization that centers Black mothers and empowers people to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice.
Additionally, there have been multiple notable legislative stratagems, which include the Kira Johnson Act, a component of the Momnibus Act of 2021 proposed by the Black Maternal Health Caucus chaired by Congresswoman Alma Adams and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood.
Objectives of the Kira Johnson Act are as Follows:
- To fund grant programs to reduce bias, racism, and discrimination training for all employees in maternity care settings.
- To provide funding for community-based organizations to prevent maternal mortality and severe morbidity among Black women.
- To establish respectful maternity care compliance offices within hospitals to provide mechanisms for pregnant and postpartum patients to report instances of disrespect or evidence of racial, ethnic, or other types of bias and promote accountability.
- To direct the national academies to study issues related to these training programs and the impact of the compliance offices.
Moreover, the CDC’s Hear Her campaign is one of several initiatives to increase patient awareness of signs and symptoms that should prompt medical attentiveness and improve communication between healthcare providers and patients.
Objectives of the CDC’s Hear Her Campaign Include:
- To increase awareness of serious pregnancy-related complications and their warning signs.
- To empower people who are pregnant and postpartum to speak up and raise concerns.
- To encourage support systems to engage in important conversations.
- To provide tools for pregnant and postpartum people, as well as healthcare professionals, to better engage in life-saving conversations.
Although awareness is a great place to start, it simply cannot stand as the extent of intervention. Action and change must follow this awareness.
I hope you will join me in honoring Black Maternal Health Week by being an advocate for centering the needs of Black women in healthcare.
I would like to conclude with words of wisdom directed by experience:
“The Black maternal health crisis is the American maternal health crisis. There is no delineation. If we can fix this for Black women, we fix it for everybody.” - Charles Johnson IV