06/12/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

How Do You Talk About Maternal Death? Remember the Woman - Share Her Story

We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph. - Elie Wiesel, The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremburg Code

Nine hundred and four miles: that's the distance between my home in Lake Stevens, Washington, and Orem, Utah, the home of Katrina Galbraith Lawrence, her husband Justus, and their six children: Kai (14), Te (12), Maya (11), Dax (8), Koa (3), and their newest infant son Jet. Despite the distance, and despite her death, I feel close to her. I could have easily been her.

Distance is the first thing you want to put between yourself and a woman like Katrina who dies due to complications of childbirth. Distance helps you rationalize why it happened to her, but could never happen to you, or to someone you love.

In the developing world, distance (from home to care) is one of the three major delays, and even in the USA, it's a factor in some women's maternal death, or near-miss. Aside from actual miles to care, the obvious distances are the ones backed by statistics (poverty, lack of prenatal care, skin color, lifestyle choices); but sometimes, we create distance out of vapor - out of assumptions.

This was never clearer to me than when Katrina passed away. Katrina's pregnancy was complicated by placenta previa and accreta and she had no choice but to have a repeat caesarian. Shortly after her son was born, Katrina's heart stopped. Despite every effort to resuscitate her, she died.

The news spread quickly through the pregnancy, childbirth, and 'near-miss' online communities of Facebook, the blog-o-sphere, and Twitter, and the 'distancing' began -

  • "This is why I would never have a C-section..." one woman wrote and many like-minded backers clicked 'Amen.'
  • "Her sixth child...why on earth was she still having children?" chimed in another, followed by more likes.
  • "She's Mormon," yes, others agreed, those Mormons are weird.
  • "Her doctor should never have let her," and the chorus thundered in agreement.

This is what we 'know' about the why - Katrina began to have complications associated with placenta previa and accreta when she was five months pregnant. Placenta accreta is when the placenta attaches itself to the uterus or other organs. This is a risk associated with abdominal surgery, such as caesarians, and the condition increases risk of hemorrhaging. Women who have had multiple caesarian sections, like Katrina, are at higher risk for placenta previa and accreta.

Placenta accreta is a severe obstetric complication involving an abnormally deep attachment of the placenta to the myometrium (the middle, muscular layer of the uterine wall), without penetrating it. Thus, the placenta grows completely through the endometrium.[1]
The placenta usually detaches from the uterine wall relatively easily, but women who encounter placenta accreta during childbirth are at great risk of hemorrhage during its removal. This commonly requires surgery to stem the bleeding and fully remove the placenta, and in severe forms can often lead to a hysterectomy or be fatal. - Wikipedia

While it is important to understand what causes a maternal death, and how we can prevent it from happening, when we at 'Save a Mother's Life' urge people to talk about maternal death in the USA, we mean talk about it without distance - without judgment. Get up close and personal. Talk about the women; their lives, their stories, their joys...

When a family has the unthinkable happen - the loss of a mother when she is trying to give life - of all the things we should talk about - the 'who, what, when, where, why, and how' of it - the most important is the "who."

From everything I've read, Katrina was an exceptional woman, wife, and mother: an "absolute spark." What matters right now is that people loved her, children needed her, and she is gone. What matters is that she is one of nearly one thousand US women a year who die due to complications of pregnancy. She was one of our own.

If you would like to help Katrina's family during this terrible time, please click on this link.

We cannot make a difference tearing down the victims, distancing ourselves by saying loudly "not me, not me, not me." What we need to remember, and what we need to be saying is - "she is me, she is me; she is me."

This distance between Katrina and me -- it's just a heartbeat.

Save a Mother's Life is a joint public awareness campaign about maternal death and near-miss in the USA sponsored by the Unexpected Project and Lucina Maternity.

Join the conversation - talk about maternal death and near-miss in the U.S.