By EJ DICKSON for Rolling Stone Magazine
The maternal mortality rate has been on the rise since the 1990s — especially among women of color.
Last Christmas, Sha-Asia Washington, a paraprofessional at a Brooklyn charter school, and her boyfriend Juwan Lopez announced to his mother Desiree Williams that she was pregnant. They gave her a Christmas card with a sonogram inside it, inscribed, “to grandma.” She was thrilled to be pregnant, posing for maternity photo after maternity photo; when the COVID pandemic hit, she had a virtual baby shower at Williams’ house, cherishing a knitted blanket with her baby name, Khloe, on it.
On July 2nd, Sha-Asia went to Woodhull Medical Center, a hospital in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, for a routine stress test. She was a few days past her due date, and the hospital decided to keep her for observation when they saw her blood pressure was abnormally high. The hospital ended up giving her pitocin, a medication that causes uterine contractions, to induce labor, asking Sha-Asia if she wanted an epidural. After some hesitation, she assented.
“The next thing you know he’s waiting there and they start running her down the hallway to the operating room,” Williams, who was on FaceTime with her son at the time, tells Rolling Stone. “He’s just screaming, ‘What happened? What happened?’ And nobody’s answering. Then somebody said the baby’s heart rate started dropping.” Washington went into cardiac arrest, prompting the doctors to decide to perform an emergency c-section; while the baby, Khloe, was healthy, Washington’s heart stopped and, after the doctors performed CPR for 45 minutes, she was pronounced dead.
Washington’s death prompted her sister-in-law Jasmin Lopez to start a GoFundMe raising money for Juwan, who is now raising Khloe alone. The GoFundMe has raised more than $45,000 and was promoted by Amy Schumer on Instagram, who used Washington’s death to highlight the racial discrepancies in the maternal mortality rate. “This woman died in Brooklyn at woodhull hospital a few days ago and never met her little girl. #shaasiawashington scream her name,” Schumer wrote.
Washington’s passing also prompted a Change.org petition calling for New York state to publish data on pregnancy outcomes to shed light on the high maternal mortality rate for black women. The petition, which has garnered more than 3,500 signatures, cites the deaths of Washington and two other black mothers in New York: Amber Rose Isaac, who died during a C-section at Montefiore Medical Center in April; and Cordielle Street, who died in March due to complications, a week after giving birth.
Generally speaking, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has been spiking since the 1990s, and is now one of the highest in the developed world. Black women in the United States are disproportionately affected: they are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white cohorts, according to Centers for Disease Control data, and nearly 60% of such deaths are preventable. “There’s no reason America should have the statistics of a third world country when it comes to black and brown birthing bodies,” says Tracie Collins, the CEO and founder of National Black Doulas Association, which shared Washington’s story on social media. “There’s just no reason for that.”
Some medical professionals have speculated that institutional racial bias in healthcare, such as doctors dismissing patients reporting health concerns and symptoms, is driving this disparity. “The structural racism that shows up in hospitals and health care institutions has been an under-examined contributor to how people die,” says Monica McLemore, associate professor in the family health care nursing department at the University of California San Francisco. “If black people are less likely to be believed, either in recognizing their own symptoms or in explaining to their healthcare systems what their symptoms are, and they don’t receive the care they need, what are they supposed to do?”
Washington’s story has since gone viral as a symbol of the dire need for improved medical care for black mothers. “A black woman lost her life because she was not being heard,” says Collins. Williams is holding a Justice for Sha-Asia Washington protest at Woodhull Hospital on Thursday. She says the hospital would not even release Khloe to her son Juwan’s care, saying he needed to take a paternity test to prove he was Khloe’s father. Washington’s mother eventually signed the baby out and gave her to Juwan, who is currently living in his Canarsie apartment with Khloe. “They sat there and they let him sit there and cry and telling him he can’t bring his daughter home,” she says. “I feel they didn’t care. And I feel [Sha-Asia] was mistreated.”
According to Williams, Washington felt pressured into having an epidural, and her death was due to the improper administration of the epidural. McLemore says that complications from anesthesia such as epidurals, though rare, is one of the top 10 causes of maternal deaths during labor. She also says that black and indigenous people are more likely to report experiencing “pressure and coercion or being repeatedly asked to do things you’ve already declined” during labor.
In a statement, Stephanie Guzman, the deputy press secretary for NYC Health and Hospitals, tells Rolling Stone, “NYC Health + Hospitals/Woodhull remains committed to the maternal health and welfare of our patients. We are saddened by this death and our condolences go out to the family of the deceased.” She added that Woodhull would be unable to provide further information due to patient privacy and confidentiality laws.
As for Khloe, Williams says she’s a happy, well-adjusted baby. Juwan has hung the dress Sha-Asia was wearing at the hospital over his headboard, and Williams says she once saw Khloe look at it and smile. The family is left reeling in Sha-Asia’s absence; Williams says that Juwan had planned to propose to her after Khloe was born. He had planned to invite her and Sha-Asia’s mom and dad over to cook baked ziti and salad for them and ask for her to marry him. He still has the ring, she says. “He said he’ll save it for Khloe and explain to her what happened to her mom and why he wasn’t able to give it to her,” she says.