Giving Birth in the U.S. is Surprisingly Deadly

December 14, 2018

There are times when flip-flops and sweatpants seem appropriate. At a Saturday afternoon picnic in the park. Or at the county fair. Or when you’re a couple preparing for the arrival of Baby Number Two. Comfort is key.

But something made Kira Johnson, 39, change her mind on the evening of April 11, 2016.

“Babe, I want to look really pretty for Langston,” she told her husband, Charles Johnson IV, as she sat before her bedroom mirror brushing her hair. The next afternoon they would head to Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for the birth of their second son.

They were committed to raising “men that would leave a mark on the world and who have a sense of purpose and responsibility far beyond themselves,” Charles explains.

Baby Number One, born in 2014 by emergency cesarean section, was named Charles Spurgeon Johnson V, after his great-great-grandfather, the famed sociologist and first black president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. His little brother would be named after the legendary Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Kira packed jewelry and a dress so she could bring him home in style. Charles decided he needed to dress the part too. “You never know when you need to look like you have a little bit of sense and a little bit of money,” Johnson recalls thinking, as he scrapped the basketball shorts and T-shirt for a button-down shirt, slacks, and loafers.

The choice was as mindful as the selection of Cedars-Sinai, consistently ranked among the best hospitals in the United States. When you have all the other bases covered—a healthy mom, a healthy baby, the best prenatal care available—why not put the icing on the cake by having your baby at a world-class facility?

Langston Emile Johnson was born at 2:33 p.m. on April 12, 2016. The scheduled C-section seemed routine, and Kira was able to breastfeed just after giving birth. She helped introduce Langston to his 18-month-old brother before drifting off to sleep.

Charles was sitting beside his wife’s bed when he noticed blood in her catheter. It was after 4 p.m. when he first told a nurse about it, according to a complaint Charles filed in 2017 with a lawsuit he brought against Cedars-Sinai. Also included in the complaint are details about the care Kira received: The catheter was changed at about 5:30 p.m. and was followed by an ultrasound and blood work. The ultrasound showed signs of internal bleeding. Pain medication and intravenous fluids were administered.

A CT scan was ordered at 6:44 p.m. Ultrasounds and blood work were repeated. A blood transfusion was given. Another four hours and still no CT scan. Another blood transfusion was given, according to the complaint. Kira was “pale and groggy,” Charles says, adding that she was “shivering uncontrollably.” Her abdomen was painful to the touch. Charles says he repeatedly asked hospital staff what was being done to identify the source of her bleeding.

“As a father and a husband, there’s a fine line between trying to advocate for your wife and crossing a line, particularly as a black man,” he recalls. Charles says he did not want to do anything that would be detrimental to his wife’s care.

Especially, Charles says, after one staff member answered his anxious query by saying, “Sir, your wife’s just not a priority right now.”

The CT scan never happened, according to the complaint. Kira was taken into surgery around 12:30 a.m., 10 hours after the C-section. Her abdomen was full of blood. Her last words to her husband, he says, were, “Baby, I’m scared.”

His wife’s fear rattled Charles, because bravery defined her: Kira had lived in China, spoke five languages, had a pilot’s license, and had driven race cars. But he assured her everything would be OK.

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