CENTRAL TEXAS — Maternal mortality. It’s a fancy phrase, but what it really means is mothers dying. Too many mothers are dying.
Because compared to other industrialized first world countries, the United States leads the world in maternal mortality rates.
In fact, the U.S. is the only developed country where the rate of women dying from pregnancy-related complicates has gone up. And in Texas, the numbers are even worse.
According to data from the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, 89 women died from pregnancy-related causes in 2012. Of those 89, 34 cases were determined to be pregnancy-related, and 50 cases were pregnancy-associated, but not pregnancy related.
And for black women, the pregnancy-related mortality rate was 2.3 times higher than the rate for Non-Hispanic White women.
A majority of women, 69 percent, were on Medicaid when they died, but it’s not all a numbers game. It’s deeply personal for the families tasked to raise the children left without mothers such as Sheryl Perkins, whose daughter Cassaundra died after giving birth to her twins via emergency c-section in 2014.
Sheryl watched in the hospital as her daughter got increasingly sick.
"I know it was God that said go to the hospital. So I called my brother and said I have to go now. It was 3:30 in the morning and I didn’t know why. I had no idea she was going to die but I said I have to go now to see her, I have to go,” said Perkins.
That would be the last time Sheryl ever saw her daughter alive.
"She said get me ready, comb my hair. I want you to comb my hair and make sure I'm dry and make sure I'm clean. But still I didn't think she was going to die, I still didn't."
Cassaundra, who had given birth to twins just days before, was only 21 years old. It was her second pregnancy. She had given birth to her daughter Journii in 2012.
Otherwise healthy, her pregnancy with the twins had been a health nightmare. Over the course of six months, she went to the emergency room 22 times.
"I just don't think they knew what to do,” said Sheryl.
After her death, Perkins said an autopsy revealed doctors had left behind pieces of placenta. They believe the infection killed her.
How Sheryl is left raising the twins, Catreyal and Camille along with their sister Journii, alone.
After nearly dying in the NICU, 4-year-old Catreyal requires constant care. But Sheryl says it’s worth it.
"I know for a fact that my daughter knew that I would take excellent care of them. I can't imagine life without them now."
Perhaps the most sobering fact of all the recent findings from the maternal mortality task force is this: Nearly 80 percent of these deaths were preventable.
It’s a statistic that hits close to home for Sheryl. She wishes they had pushed for more answers from the doctor. She wants mothers to know that even on Medicaid, they always have a choice.
"You can get a doctor, you can get the one you want. If there's something going wrong you don't like, question it," she said.
This September, the task force released their most recent recommendations for how to begin to improve the rates in Texas and save more women's lives.
First, they recommend "increasing access to health services during the year after pregnancy to improve the health of women, facilitate continuity of care, enable effective care transitions, and promote safe birth spacing."
Additionally, the task force suggests enhanced screening and appropriate referral for maternal risk conditions.
They also advise "promoting a culture of safety and high reliability through implementation of best practices in birthing facilities." That includes developing programs to address cardiovascular and coronary conditions, cardiomyopathy and infection. These are typically the most common causes of death among mothers.
For women who have already had their babies, the task force wants to improve postpartum care management and discharge education for patients and families.
Finally, to address high-risk populations, especially black women, the state is encouraged to increase maternal health programming to target these mothers specifically.
For a full list of the task force recommendations: