As a Bangladeshi woman, I could not have felt more fortunate when I decided to give birth in America. It was a natural choice for my American husband and me. After almost a decade working at a political action organization where I lobbied to ensure U.S. foreign policy protects women’s reproductive health and rights, I was well aware that every year more than 289,000 women and girls globally die needlessly in childbirth. What I could not have imagined was how close I would come to becoming one of those numbers.
I was born in a country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and though Bangladesh has famously slashed its maternal mortality numbers by 40 percent, too many women are still dying. The majority of births still take place at home, without the presence of a skilled birth attendant.
I felt so confident about my hospital choice in Washington D.C.; it had consistently ranked among the top 100 hospitals in the nation. Deep inside, I understood how lucky I was to be able to access what I thought was some of the best health care in the world. During the course of my pregnancy, I never worried about complications during my delivery in September 2011. I could not have been more wrong. Things went awry right from the beginning — the hospital was understaffed when I arrived — and a number of missteps ensued.
After 30 hours of labor, two hours of which were spent pushing, my doctors finally decided to perform an emergency C-section. To make matters worse, my epidural slipped, and the pain was so severe that I ran a fever of 104 degrees. I began to shake uncontrollably because my body temperature was so hot.
When my daughter was born, the doctors rushed her away from me so she would not catch my fever, which I was told well after the fact by a pediatrician. I did not even get a glimpse of her. Three hours after my baby was born, I finally got to hold her in my arms.
While all the commotion of my delivery took me by complete surprise, the one thing I kept telling myself over and over again was, “I am in America. I will be fine. I know I am not going to die in childbirth in Washington!” But that day, I came very close to losing both myself and my baby. The experience was incredibly traumatic, and left me with severe hyperthyroidism. I developed a condition called “Grave’s Disease,” my thyroid levels were through the roof, and my left eye began to protrude. The struggle women go through to give birth became a tangible reality for me. After my harrowing ordeal, the hospital actually fired one of the doctors, demoted another and refunded me the anesthesia costs.
The experience also made me realize that pregnancy related deaths are not merely casualties of the “developing world.” They happen in “developed” countries as well. In fact, America has one of the worst maternal mortality rates amongst industrialized nations.
Although 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, the U.S. currently ranks 60th in the world when it comes to maternal death rates, with 18.5 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. Shockingly, the U.S. remains one of the few countries in the world were maternal deaths are actually rising. Most people have no idea about these facts.
“In the U.S., we lose two mothers per day, and half of those are preventable,” Christy Turlington-Burns, Founder of Every Mother Counts, tells me. “Americans spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world and we don’t necessary receive better care for the high price we pay. Our system is broken and when a health care system is broken, sadly its women and children who suffer most.”
This Mother’s Day, stop and remember the numbers. Remember that each number represents a real woman, someone’s daughter, sister, wife. Take the time to take a stand for the right that each and every woman has, from Washington to Dhaka, to not die giving life. I know I will.