ATLANTA — (Editor's note: Four years ago, 11Alive published the story of Kira Johnson - a mother who gave birth to her second child and, within 12 hours, died from a hemorrhage. As Thursday, April 13, 2023 marks seven years since her death, we are re-publishing her story during Black Maternal Health Week with maternal health, particularly for Black Americans, still a major and under-addressed issue. Scroll to the bottom of this story for updated numbers that show how dire the situation remains.)
Kira Johnson's husband, Charles, considered her unstoppable.
She spoke five languages, traveled the world and raced cars with Charles by her side. The couple had their first child, Charles Johnson V, in 2015 and a year later they were expecting their second.
“We always wanted back-to-back boys. When we found out that we were welcoming another boy, we were just ecstatic,” Charles recalled.
He said Kira never missed a prenatal visit and got great reports every time. All signs pointed to a healthy delivery. Charles said he knew his wife was admitted into the hospital in exceptional health and that she delivered a healthy baby boy, Langston.
But he realized, as he watched her struggle in the recovery room, that something was wrong.
Waiting for help
He noticed blood in Kira’s catheter. He said he brought it to the attention of the nurses and doctors, and the staff ordered a CT scan.
"That was supposed to be performed STAT," Charles said. "In my mind, I'm thinking, 'That means immediately.'"
Charles said he repeatedly asked the medical staff for help, but waited for hours.
“She's beginning to tremble uncontrollably," Charles recalled. "She's beginning to shake. She's beginning to be in increasingly more pain. She's becoming sensitive to the touch. There's still no CT scan."
Charles said a CT was never performed, and they waited seven hours before doctors took her back for an internal exam.
When the time came to examine Kira, Charles said the doctor told him they would fix the problem.
'She'll be back in 15 minutes'
"'She'll be back in 15 minutes," Charles said the doctor told him. "And that was the last time I saw Kira alive."
Charles said doctors found three liters of blood in Kira’s stomach and her heart stopped immediately.
Less than 12 hours after giving birth to their second child, Kira Johnson died from a hemorrhage.
“We walked in for what we expected to be the happiest day of our life. And we walked straight into a nightmare,” Charles said.
Charles' mother is Glenda Hatchett. She operates a law firm in Atlanta, but is also known from her nationally syndicated reality court TV show Judge Hatchett. She and her daughter-in-law Kira were very close. She was at the hospital before Langston was born. The news about Kira's death devastated her.
"She was so excited that Langston was coming. She should be here," Hatchett said.
Mothers are dying
When this story was originally published in 2019, the most recent, most robust study on maternal mortality in the U.S. - based on 2015 data - revealed that for every 100,000 births there were 26 mothers who die in the U.S.
Different sources cite different numbers, but sources including the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the World Health Organization reported slight improvement by 2019 and 2020. The 2019 figure, according to the NCHS, was 20.1, and in 2020 it was 23.8. The WHO reports a U.S. figure of 21 for 2020.
While improved, that still compared poorly with countries such as the United Kingdom (10), France (8), Germany (4) as well as countries including Egypt (17), Chile (15) and Kazakhstan (13).
And, according to preliminary data, in 2021, amid the pandemic, it may have taken a downturn that exceeds figures even from 10 years ago. The NCHS found preliminary data that points to a maternal mortality rate in the U.S. for 2021 at 32.9 deaths per 100,000 births - a total of 1,205 mothers who aren't with their children.
According to the WHO statistics, that would put the United States about on par with Uzbekistan (30).
Black maternal mortality
The situation is even more harrowing for Black mothers. According to the NCHS data on 2021, Black women experienced about 70 deaths per 100,000 births, more than two-and-a-half times the rate of white women.
That would be comparable to Libya (72).
White women saw a rate of 26.6, and Hispanic women 28.
The study did not suggest a cause for the alarming spike in maternal mortality rate, though reporting by CNN suggested the COVID-19 pandemic was in part to blame.
“There is no acceptable maternal mortality. It is a fundamental measure of a nation's health and health care system," Dr. William Callaghan, chief of the CDC's Maternal and Infant Health Branch, told 11Alive in 2019. "So what this would say about ours, is that ours isn't all that healthy, and we've got a lot of work to do."
In the wake of COVID, the data suggests there's more work to do than ever.
Our full investigation: Mothers Matter: Why childbirth is a death sentence for many Black moms