By Chuck Goudie and Christine M Tressel, ABC7 News
Across the country, the numbers of women who die during or after pregnancy remain at an alarming level.
That may come as a surprise to many people, since the United States is one of wealthiest and medically rich countries.
In 2018, the year with the most recent national data, a total of 658 women in the United States died while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy, according to new data published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Reports.
Maternal death was defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of being pregnant, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or the management of the pregnancy. These maternal deaths in the new report do not include women who died by suicide or homicide.
In 2018, there were 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States, according to the report. When that number was broken down by race and age, significant disparities emerged.
In Illinois, the numbers are also concerning. The most current data shows dangerous complications related to pregnancy remain stubbornly high.
Eric Beverly’s wife is one of the victims behind the numbers.
In 2010, Lashon Bilbro-Beverly was 32 weeks pregnant and having troubled breathing when she went to the emergency room at Norwegian American Hospital on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
According to a 2016 federal lawsuit, the 40-year-old asthmatic was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia, but placed in a regular room and not admitted to intensive care.
Less than 48 hours later, the mother of 6 was dead.
Eric Beverly said he was shocked when doctors told him his wife was gone.
“The doctor came in and said they, they were working on her and they had lost her,” Beverly said.
Their baby boy named Jordan was delivered stillborn about 45 minutes later.
The medical negligence case resulted in $9 million verdict.
Personal injury attorney Elizabeth Kaveny represented Beverly. “It’s shocking, even to an attorney and I’ve been doing this for some 20 years – this particular story is still shocking to me,” she said. “You hope to have a healthy child but you never think- and I hope to live through it.”
Kaveny said Lashon’s pregnancy, and the treatment decisions made because of it, played a role in her death.
“They know she’s pregnant, they know she has labored breathing, they know she has asthma, they know she has a respiratory infection but they don’t have a clip on her finger to monitor whether she’s being properly oxygenated,” Kaveny said.
A spokesperson with Norwegian American Hospital said they would decline comment because the hospital was not involved in the litigation.
Deaths tied to pregnancy are still considered rare in the U.S., as most pregnancies result in healthy babies and women.
But, women are dying and health experts maintain any loss is unacceptable because most pregnancy related deaths are preventable.
In Illinois, between 2008 and 2016, an average of 73 women died annually within one year of pregnancy. That statistic was revealed in a first-of-its-kind state report on maternal deaths that came out in 2018. What the report showed is that over a nine year period from 2008 to 2016, the maternal mortality numbers had not gone down.
Dr. Engozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state is taking the lead on fully identifying the problems.
“That first report super red a lot of energy, a lot of attention, a lot of legislation, a lot of calls for improvement and so that is the direction we are headed in and that’s the direction we are going to continue to go,” she said. Ezike added, “The truth is we still have work to do, but we know that a lot of work is being done.”
Another troubling discovery, black women in Illinois are six times as likely to die of a pregnancy-related condition as white women. That rate is almost double the national average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for black women is three to four times higher than those of white women.
Maternal mortality can happen during pregnancy, at delivery, and even up to a year afterward.
The top causes include: heart disease, stroke, severe bleeding and infection.
“America is finally waking up to the fact that we got a problem,” said Angela Ellison, the senior director with the UIC Office of Community Engagement & Neighborhood Health Partnerships.
Ellison said she was just 9 years old when her mother died of a blood clot soon after giving birth to her sister.
“When it comes to maternal mortality, now it’s becoming a fight for me it’s like, no baby should have to go through what me and my sister had to go through,” she said.
Ellison is leading a nearly $5 million grant program at the University of Illinois at Chicago to improve maternal and infant health in underserved communities.
She said African American women face a much greater risk of maternal mortality due to complex circumstances.
“If I could be so bold but racism does play a factor, they may not be getting the right kind of care, not being treated in the way that is equitable or in place they feel welcome,” she said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is overseeing efforts to find solutions with millions of dollars in grant money and this past summer, more than a half dozen state maternal health laws were passed, including new legal rights for patients and mandated training for medical staff to handle childbirth emergencies.
What you will see now in birthing centers across the state are specialized carts stocked with equipment to help stop emergency bleeding. Representatives at Cook County Health said their hospital was one of he first medical centers in Illinois to recognize the need and voluntarily add the carts to their maternity section.
Also, hospitals in Illinois must now collect and report more accurate data on maternal deaths.
Even though that law went into effect this past summer – the ABC7 I-Team discovered that data is not yet available.
Public health officials said there’s a delay smoothing out details with hospitals.
“So that it can really be reflective of what it was intended to be and not just trying to be disparaging to certain facilities versus others,’ said Dr. Mark Loafman, chairman of family medicine at Cook County Health.
Loafman has spent decades working with underserved communities to improve pregnancy outcomes. He’s frustrated the numbers have not been coming down.
“We do more, we enact more tools, more procedures, and more committees and more time and yet, we don’t see improvement and I think somehow we need a new approach,” he said.
Despite all the resources and efforts, Loafman predicts upcoming Illinois statistics on maternal death will not show much change.
“I haven’t seen the final numbers yet but I am not anticipating, I’m not hopeful of a change. I think we’ll see similar, maybe we’ll be lucky, but I think it’s going to be pretty similar,” Loafman said.
The 2019 Illinois Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Report is expected to be released by IDPH within the coming weeks.
This article originally appeared on ABC7 News.