ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

What We’ve Learned So Far About Maternal Mortality From You, Our Readers

Our first maternal health story started with unusual sources, an ask and lots of collaboration. We’re just getting started.

Bryan Anselm for ProPublica

Last Thursday night, I tweeted: “The story we’re dropping tomorrow is the 1st time I wish I had a superpower to *force* people to read a thing.”

I still think that.

“The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth” is the first part of our investigation with NPR into how the United States has become the most dangerous place to be pregnant among the world’s more affluent nations.

Every year 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die. Almost 60 percent of the deaths are preventable.

We told the story of Lauren Bloomstein — a nurse, married to a doctor — who died at her own hospital 20 hours after her daughter was born. Here’s a video her husband Larry took soon after the birth.

When we first asked readers months ago to share their stories, we said we would give regular updates on our reporting. Today, we’re giving you the backstory to the project, and where we’re going from here.

How We Started — and Learned That a Public Health Problem Is Too Often Treated as a Private Tragedy

It’s been seven months since our engagement team started to work with reporter Nina Martin on the investigation. Lack of data was among the main challenges. By almost every measure, basic tracking of maternal deaths and near-deaths is inadequate. Numbers are vague and ambiguous.

This left us looking to unconventional sources for names, causes of death and places where women are dying. We found particular success on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.

Families and loved ones were sharing devastating details on pages set up to help cover the unexpected costs of losing a mother. This was particularly striking because people so rarely talk about maternal deaths elsewhere. Even the most popular mommy blogs don’t often delve into mortality and near-deaths. We realized that it’s part of a pattern: Treating the death of a mother due to pregnancy or childbirth as a private tragedy rather than as part of a public health crisis.

We wanted to build and convene this community. So the first thing we published was a request: Do You Know Someone Who Died or Nearly Died in Childbirth?

The response was overwhelming.

We heard from 2,500 people the first week, mostly women reporting that they had nearly died. Women told us they were rarely asked about what happened.

More than 3,100 people have now responded to our detailed questionnaire.

We’ve also heard from many, many others via email. And some, like New York Times reporter Catherine Saint Louis, publicly recounted their own near-death experiences:

We’re Looking Next at Racial Disparities, And Here’s How You Can Help

As successful as our callout has been, we want to reach more women of color. African Americans are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth complications than whites, yet we have only heard about 120 stories relating to black mothers.

We are now researching an upcoming article about racial disparities. Last week, we asked the black women we’ve heard from where they talk with other women about surviving childbirth complications.

We’re also working on several partnerships to reach wider audiences.

If you are interested in hosting our questionnaire, please let us know. In addition to our reporting teams at NPR and ProPublica, we worked with two university classes. Journalism students at NYU helped verify information about the women’s deaths we found via GoFundMe and Facebook research. And students from CUNY’s social journalism program worked on outreach strategies to get our callout in front of as many people as possible.

We are just getting started. As we move forward, we want your help too.

Do you know someone who should see the callout? Share it with them. Do you know about a group, organization or person who is thinking about this that we should talk to? Tell us. Do you have a story we need to hear about or information that will help not only us but the women and families impacted by this issue? Get in touch.

Here’s how: maternal@propublica.org

We’re listening.

Correction, May 18, 2017: This story has been corrected to reflect that Lauren Bloomstein died after giving birth to a daughter, not a son.

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