Listen to this article here

Kira Dixon Johnson should be celebrating Mother’s Day with her family this weekend. Instead, her husband is suing Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles for her death during childbirth in 2016. 

Charles Johnson IV, Kira’s husband, alleges that the young Black woman bled to death following a c-section because of systemic racism at Cedars-Sinai. The hospital denies the claims.

Mr. Johnson noted that he discovered the disparities in how Black women are treated during pregnancy and childbirth while in the midst of depositions for the wrongful death suit. At a press conference he stated, “There’s no doubt in my mind that my wife would be here today and be here Sunday celebrating Mother’s Day with her boys if she was a Caucasian woman.”

He continued, “The reality is that on April 12, 2016, when we walked into Cedars-Sinai hospital for what we expected to be the happiest day of our lives, the greatest risk factor that Kira Dixon Johnson faced was racism.”

Maternal mortality’s impact on Black women

Structural racism within healthcare is not new to Black women and their families. Additionally, pregnancy and childbirth are particularly risky for women of Color, who die during childbirth at a rate over twice as high as White women.

In fact, racism is known as a social determinant of health – a risk factor for poor medical care and increased healthcare problems. Due to historic and ongoing racism, Black families are more likely to live in areas of lower socioeconomic status, places where access to healthcare is limited. 

According to Tulsa nurse LaToya Smith, “Structural racism is detrimental to Black women because it creates a barrier in access to high quality care for black women. Inequity is a core component of healthcare policy in this country and leads to poorer outcomes for black women.”

Meanwhile, the United States’ reliance on for-profit healthcare only creates more barriers for Black women to receive comprehensive care. Childbirth costs are astronomical – particularly for Black families, whose babies are more likely to be born pre-term and at low-birthweight, thus potentially needing high-level care.

Racism in the operating room

But it was Kira Johnson herself who needed care when she entered Cedars-Sinai for a scheduled c-section in 2016. Ms. Johnson died 12 hours later from internal bleeding and a lacerated bladder.

In fact, even hospital staff noted that Kira Johnson’s care was subpar. Angelique Washington, a Black surgical technologist, said “patient safety was out the door” for Ms. Johnson during her c-section.

Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick, chair of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Cedars-Sinai, confirmed to the Johnson family, “I’m sorry. We failed your family. … This shouldn’t have happened.”

Mr. Johnson alleges that it was racism that led to his wife’s untimely death, following a c-section that lasted just 17 minutes, much shorter than childbirth surgeries performed with care. Several hours later she was re-admitted for what should have been life-saving surgery.

By then it was too late for the Johnson family. 

However, Mr. Johnson has turned tragedy into action, testifying before Congress about systemic racism in healthcare. He also promotes a California law that requires hospital staff to recognize implicit bias.

He is also promoting a bill that would end the cap on malpractice payouts. The trial begins May 11, although court records indicate the two sides are close to settling. 

Meanwhile, systemic racism still abounds within healthcare for Black patients.  According to Ms. Washington, the surgical technician, “When I see my Black … patients come in, I say an extra prayer. I say a silent prayer that all goes well. Because you do have racism very much so in the operating room.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...