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Deadly deliveries: What Oklahoma is doing to combat rising maternal death rate

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American women are dying every day from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. The maternal death rate in the U.S. and in Oklahoma is on the rise.

“You would think in the United States, with the sophistication of our healthcare system, that we would not have this issue,” said Barbara O’Brien, director of the Office of Perinatal Quality Improvement at OUHSC.

Many reports estimate more than 60 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable.

“At the beginning of the pregnancy, it was very normal,” said Oklahoma City attorney Alicia Currin-Moore. “I had normal cravings and the normal weight gain.”

Currin-Moore and her husband couldn’t wait to meet their first child, but when she was about 30 weeks pregnancy, things went downhill fast.

“I started to have rapid weight gain, increased blood pressure that lasted for a period of time, headaches, so on and so forth,” she said. “So those, looking back on it, were all signs of preeclampsia.”

When she started to feel really ill, her husband took her to the hospital, where she collapsed and started having seizures. After an emergency C-section, their son Mason was taken to the NICU.

“My son was actually much tougher than I was,” Currin-Moore said. “He was born at 3 pounds 3 ounces, 6 weeks early, but he was fine. It was actually me that was having health issues.”

The doctor was having a hard time stabilizing Currin-Moore.

“He came back out and talked to my husband and said, ‘I want you to prepare to be a single father because I’m not sure if we can save her,’” she said.

Childbirth almost killed her.

“Every year around his birthday, I always think about it and how things could be different,” said Currin-Moore.

Currin-Moore could have been a part of a stunning statistic. The United States has the highest number of pregnancy-related deaths in the entire developed world.

“Unfortunately, maternal mortality has been climbing not only in the nation, but in Oklahoma, the past few years,” said Joyce Marshall, director for Maternal & Child Health Service at the Oklahoma State Dept. of Health. “In fact, in the past nine years, it’s increased by almost 50 percent in Oklahoma.”

The outcomes are even worse for women of color.

“Black women are three to four times more likely to die after giving birth, and also our native American population has an increased risk,” said O’Brien.

The Oklahoma State Dept. of Health formed a maternal mortality review committee to investigate the deaths in our state.

“We’re looking for system level changes we can make in order to improve the health of women and their babies,” said Jill Nobles-Botkin, the administrative program manager for Perinatal & Reproductive Health at OSDH.

It’s not clear exactly why more moms are dying in Oklahoma and across the nation.

Chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and high blood pressure do play a big role.

“Seeing a healthcare provider and identifying any health conditions and getting them under control before you get pregnant is the number one message we want to get out to women and their families,” said Nobles-Botkin.

Access to healthcare is also a factor, with several rural hospitals closing in Oklahoma in recent years.

“We do rank low in number of providers for women, both in specialties and primary care,” Marshall said.

Healthcare leaders say raising awareness about the potential dangers of pregnancy and childbirth is key.

“We know that 60 percent of those deaths occur in the postpartum period, either immediately after or within a year of giving birth,” said O’Brien. “So we’re educating women with what we call post-birth warning signs”

The information isn’t meant to cloud the happiness surrounding a pregnancy.

“I don’t want to be the Debbie Downer at baby showers, sharing my story, but at the same time I think it’s valuable to share,” Currin-Moore said.

She wants others to know her story so more moms can live to see their babies grow up.

“It’s humbling to know I was blessed to be here to tell my story, and then it is sobering to know that so many women – perhaps for lack of strong medical care or not knowing the signs and symptoms – that they go overlooked until it’s too late,” she said.

The two most preventable causes of maternal mortality are hemorrhage and severe hypertension, or preeclampsia. Rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, severe headaches, difficulty breath, and bleeding can all be symptoms of pregnancy and childbirth complications. If something doesn’t feel right, always let your healthcare providers know.

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