When Charles Johnson awoke in the hospital maternity room with his newborn son Langston on the day after his birth April 12, 2016, he felt joy — but also shock and grief. His wife Kira, who had given birth to their second child just hours before, had died after her Cesarean section.
Unfortunately, he is one of many partners who has lost someone through childbirth. At least 861 women died of maternal causes in the U.S. in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Black women are nearly three times more likely to die in childbirth or from childbirth complications than white women. In some communities, the disparity is even larger.
"Every single one of these mothers' lives is precious and valuable," says Johnson, now 41, who has made it his mission to prevent more maternal losses.
Johnson says he never expected to be a part of the maternal health crisis. His wife, Kira Dixon Johnson, was 39 when she died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was "not just in good health, she was in exceptional health," Johnson says. She spoke four languages fluently, raced cars, ran marathons, had a pilot's license and started a hospitality consulting business. The couple had married in 2015 and planned to have two children.
Kira had experienced a difficult delivery with her first son Charles and had ended up needing a Cesarean, which is why her doctor scheduled a Cesarean for her second child as well. Holding that second baby, Johnson says, "We were ecstatic that it was another boy, a built-in best friend [for Charles.]"
But after the delivery, things started to go wrong. Johnson noticed blood in the catheter. He notified nurses and medical staff who ordered blood work and a CT scan, which he says was never performed. An ultrasound hours later showed Kira's abdomen was filled with fluid. She was losing color, shivering and sensitive to touch. "There were very clear signs that she was hemorrhaging internally," he said at the activist rally March for Moms in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
"Eight o'clock comes, I'm begging, I'm pleading … Still no scan," he said. At 9pm, Kira received a blood transfusion. "I ask, and I'm begging again, 'Do something — where is the CT scan? I thought it was supposed to be performed hours ago,' " he recalled. He said he was told by staff that Kira was not a priority. "It was not until after midnight that they finally took Kira back to the OR," he said. The doctor said she'd be back in 15 minutes.
"And that was the last time I saw my wife alive," Johnson said.
Once home, Johnson was angry and mourning, and having dreams that Kira was alive. He turned himself into a super-parent for both Charles, a toddler, and his newborn Langston. "I was overwhelmed," he says. "I had an 18-month-old who was missing his mom desperately, and I had a newborn. I wouldn't let anybody help," he says, adding that he moved to Atlanta to be near his and Kira's families. At his mother's urging, Johnson asked the pediatrician to recommend a baby nurse to put the children on a schedule.
"Having to explain to Charles why Mommy's not coming home is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," says Johnson. He tried to console them with whatever they could understand. He finally came up with, "I'm sorry, I miss Mommy too. I want Mommy to come home too. But unfortunately, she's in heaven doing important work with God."
When Charles was 3, said he wanted to go to heaven, too. "There's no manual to prepare you for something like that," Johnson says. "It's so unfair for them to be robbed like this."
The boys are now 7 and 6, and Johnson still considers himself a co-parent with his late wife who, in a home video clip, plays with baby Charles, applauds him, looks up at the camera and says, "I hope this is forever. I know this is forever."
Their home features large prints of Kira on the walls. When choosing schools, disciplining the boys, and making other parenting decisions, Johnson always considers how Kira would have approached things. He exposes the boys to travel and foreign languages, which Kira loved. "When Beyoncé comes on, and that's mommy's favorite song, we turn it all the way up to the max," Johnson says.
Some days he feels "schizophrenic" parenting without Kira, Johnson admits. "You're trying to be two people. You are trying to be nurturing, but you're also trying to be stern. You have to be that balance … It's me wanting to make sure they're not lacking," he says, getting teary. "I just do my best."
Since his wife's death, Johnson has reached out to more than 100 men, grandmothers, uncles, and others who suddenly found themselves bringing up babies after a woman died from childbirth.
"Every story varies slightly. The mother or the family expressed [their] concerns, and they were dismissed, downplayed, or denied care — and by the time [health professionals] did something about it, it was too late. Over and over. Sometimes it's sepsis, sometimes it's internal bleeding, sometimes it's post-partum depression that resulted in a suicide."
In 2017 he founded the nonprofit, 4Kira4Moms, to end preventable maternal mortality. He testified before Congress about the importance of maternal mortality review committees in every state, which helped pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act in 2018. Last year he testified before Congress again, this time for the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, which combined a dozen initiatives, including better training in maternity wards and mandated protocols and standards to "culturally codify respectful care."
That second trip to Washington, D.C., was just before Mother's Day. "I was thinking about mothers who could not spend Mother's Day with their children because our country had failed them — and that's what I told Congress," he says. The bill has not yet passed.
Johnson worries maternal mortality will increase from abortion restrictions and bans that are being passed around the country. "We have the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world — for a country that is already failing women to this magnitude, to then force them into unwanted childbirth is going to compound what is already a terrible situation, and it is going to more so affect people from Black and brown communities."
"Not only do we need to take into consideration what this means for the mother, but what does it mean for her other children and her family?" he says.
Currently, Johnson is suing the hospital and doctors for wrongful death and for civil rights violations, believing that his wife would still be alive if she were white. "I still am absolutely furious. What happened to Kira is so egregious. There is no reason that Kira should not be here with her boys today. She was healthy, she had access to care, she had a family there to advocate, she didn't have any pre-existing conditions."
"What happened to Kira should not have been fatal. Post-partum hemorrhage happens. But it was the manner in which they delayed and denied and allowed her to bleed for hours that led to her death," he says.
"Women all over this country deserve better," he said at March for Moms. "There's nothing I can do to bring Kira back. But what I can do, and the highest honor and tribute that I can pay to my wife, is to fight as hard as I possibly can whenever I can to make sure that we send mothers home with their babies."