One in Eight Maternal Deaths Occurs Between Six Weeks and a Year Postpartum

In this video, Dr. Sabra Lewsey, a member of the Association of Black Cardiologists, shares the story of a young African American woman who she met during her training. The patient was only 25 years old at the time and had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. In the months that followed, she found herself struggling to take care of him: Her legs were swollen, she was short of breath and nauseated nearly all of the time. "To our knowledge, her pregnancy was uncomplicated," Dr. Lewsey says. "She always made her OB appointments. She was diligent with her prenatal vitamins. She didn't have any medical issues."

Over the next several months, this new mother was in and out of the hospital repeatedly for the same symptoms. "She lost her job. Her family was unable to help her. In fact, she was her mother's caregiver," Dr. Lewsey explains. "She ended up nearly homeless and on the brink of losing her son." After six months of this horrible cycle, Dr. Lewsey's patient was finally referred to a heart failure cardiologist for severe, advanced peripartum cardiomyopathy. She needed a new heart but was told she didn't have enough social support to be a transplant candidate. Before she could celebrate her son's first birthday, she was gone.

"I wish this was the only story like this that I had to tell," says Dr. Lewsey. "Unfortunately, it's not. As a heart failure cardiologist, I have met several Black women who have been in the fight of their lives while becoming mothers. The all-too-common story that they tell me is how they have to persist, and try to convince their physicians that their symptoms are real."

An unfortunate legacy of our nation's history and structural racism are the disproportionate deaths of Black women and babies. Data from the National Vital Statistics just two years ago showed that maternal mortality rates for non-Hispanic Black women are two-and-a-half times that of non-Hispanic white women, and three-and-a-half times that of Hispanic women. The vast majority of these maternal deaths are preventable.

This is not about socioeconomic status. Black women of all income and educational levels have higher rates of maternal mortality. Over the last 20 years, this high Black maternal death rate has placed the United States second worst among developed nations. Considering that one in eight maternal deaths occurs between six weeks and a year postpartum, getting through the delivery is just one step. "In fact," Dr. Lewsey adds, "women with pregnancy-related complications are at higher risk of cardiovascular issues throughout their lifetime. And most of them don't know because they've never been told."

We cannot allow any more Black women to be stolen away by premature, preventable death. This is a crisis, and it must end.

Visit OWN's Heart Health page throughout the month of February for vital updates and information about cardiac disease prevention.