In a photo taken hours before she gave birth last Friday, Sha-asia Washington grinned from her bed at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital, a portrait of joy and excitement.
Unknown to Washington, her partner, Juwan Lopez, 24, was planning to propose marriage to her the following weekend. He had planned to wait until their baby was born, according to his mother, because he wanted their child to be a part of the celebration.
Over FaceTime, Lopez’s sister Jasmin cheered on a nervous Washington. “I said, ‘Call me when everything is over. You got this, you can do this,’” she recalled tearfully.
The call would never come. Washington died shortly after delivering her daughter, Khloe, during an emergency C-section at the city-run Bedford-Stuyvesant hospital on July 3. She was 26 years old.
“I never thought I’d get a phone call from my brother and he’s holding his baby and they just told him that her heart has stopped,” said Jasmin Lopez. “How does your heart stop at 26?”
Washington’s death has spurred renewed scrutiny of the racial disparities in maternal health care for Black women in New York City, who are eight times more likely to die due to complications related to pregnancy than white women. That’s a figure even higher than the disparity seen at the national level.
An online petition launched after Washington’s death demands New York State require hospitals to report maternal deaths that happen before, during and after delivery, as well as other data, “with a racial breakdown on all data points.”
Washington is at least the third Black woman to die from apparent childbirth-related complications in New York City so far this year.
Her death comes nearly three months after Amber Rose Isaac, who was the same age as Washington, died at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx on April 21, days after she tweeted concerns about her care at that hospital.
‘It’s Not Fair’
On Thursday, Washington’s loved ones and about 100 others, including doulas from around the city, rallied in front of Woodhull Hospital.
Holding signs that read “Justice for Khloe,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for Sha-asia,” Lopez’s sister and parents, Jose Lopez and Desiree Williams, spoke of Washington’s life and death.
“I’m staying up all night holding the baby that she should be here holding,” Williams said at the rally. “It’s not fair, it’s not right. My son is broken down, it’s not right.”
The family is crowdsourcing donations for Washington’s funeral and to help support her newborn daughter.
Lopez attended the rally but did not speak. He stood somberly behind his family and other supporters, including Bruce McIntyre, Amber Isaac’s partner.
The elder Lopez, speaking at the rally, said that Washington died as a result of an epidural administered during the delivery.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Juwan Lopez and Williams said that Washington was admitted to Woodhull on July 2 for a routine stress test. The hospital kept her for observation because she was several days past her due date and her blood pressure was unusually high, they said. Doctors asked Washington if she wanted an epidural and she agreed after some hesitation, Williams told the magazine.
Washington went into cardiac arrest, prompting doctors to perform an emergency C-section. Her daughter, Khloe, was healthy.
Doctors spent 45 minutes trying to resuscitate Washington, Williams said at Woodhull on Thursday.
Speaking at the rally, Williams said her son “cannot bear” the pain of Washington’s death. “He’s crying all day and all night,” she said.
Juwan Lopez took the picture of Washington smiling on her hospital bed in the hours before her delivery. In a Facebook post with the photo, which has been shared thousands of times, he wrote it was the couple’s “last happy moment.”
The city Health + Hospitals Corporation, which operates Woodhull and other public hospitals, issued a statement late Thursday calling Washington’s death “a tremendous loss.”
“Our heartfelt condolences go to the family, friends and community who bear the unspeakable pain of their loved one taken from them too soon,” the statement added. “While all maternal mortality is tragic, we are too well aware that pregnant women of color die at much higher rates, and we are particularly disheartened when such a death occurs on our watch, no matter the cause. We are committed to addressing this unacceptable disparity and continue in our steadfast pursuit to expand access to care, eliminate race-based health care gaps and prevent such tragedies.”
‘A Third Pandemic’
On top of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the city’s Black residents, and the nationwide reckoning on police brutality, some advocates pointed to “a third pandemic” in New York’s maternal mortality crisis.
It’s stark in Brooklyn: While the borough’s overall severe maternal mortality rate is second to The Bronx, the neighborhoods that ranked highest citywide are all in Brooklyn, according to a 2016 study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
New York ranks 23 among the 50 states for maternal mortality, with 25.5 deaths per 100,000 births, according to the United Health Foundation.
In 2018, New York City First Lady Chirlaine McCray published a four-point plan to address the city’s maternal mortality crisis.
That same year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a task force to address maternal morbidity and racial disparities in care in the state. The task force published a list of recommendations in 2019, but it remains unclear how much progress has been made from that plan.
While a 2016 state law requires New York hospitals to report annual data on birth-related procedures, including use of forceps, c-sections and vaginal births, hospitals are not required to publish granular maternal death data.
‘A Beautiful Soul’
Tia Dowling, a Brooklyn doula and founder of MeTooDoula Services, said that the recent childbirth deaths of Black women in New York City are not surprising given the longstanding disparities in care. She said other deaths and near-misses throughout the years known to the doula community didn’t make headlines.
Dowling added that Black parents often report being dismissed by medical professionals when reporting pain, discomfort or other issues.
“It’s institutional racism, it’s downright racism that is the case,” Dowling said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s not like you’re a person with cancer, you’re having a baby. You’re not supposed to die when you’re having a baby. Not in the United States, not in New York City.
“It doesn’t make me sad anymore, it just makes me enraged.”
Washington, a graduate of Borough of Manhattan Community College, worked as a paraprofessional at a Brooklyn charter school.
Jasmin Lopez described her as “a beautiful soul” who “wanted to be a mom and was going to be an amazing one.”
“I lost my friend, I lost my sister, I lost my niece’s mother,” she said tearfully at the rally. “I just want justice for her.”
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