The childbirth deaths of Amber Rose Isaac and Sha-asia Washington, 26-year-old Black women who died during delivery in The Bronx and Brooklyn earlier this year, galvanized protests throughout the city and spurred renewed scrutiny of the city’s Black maternal mortality crisis.
The issue is personal for Tricia Shimamura, who is running to replace term-limited Councilmember Ben Kallos in the Upper East Side. She, too, had a high-risk pregnancy and experienced complications stemming from her delivery last year.
“When I think about Amber Rose Isaac and Sha-asia Washington, these are women that by all accounts should be here and be with their children,” she said.
This week, Shimamura released a host of proposals to end treatment disparities for women of color. More than 40 City Council hopefuls — all women, including two competing with Shimamura in the Democratic primary — have signed on.
Like Isaac and Washington, Shimamura was diagnosed with high blood pressure during her pregnancy and was being closely monitored by her doctors.
In the early stages of delivery, she said, an on-call resident at Lenox Hill Hospital came over to inspect a disoriented, groggy Shimamura — who alleges that the doctor-in-training “dismissed” her pain and misdiagnosed her symptoms.
Panicked and in pain, Shimamura and her husband flagged down her OBGYN, who reversed course, she told THE CITY.
Lenox Hill did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After being discharged home a few days after delivery, Shimamura had to return to the hospital within hours for an additional several days. Today, she and her son, Teddy, are healthy. But her doctor said that if she hadn’t spoken up, the consequences could have been fatal for mother and son.
“You can talk about inequities in our health-care system and you’re aware of them as a woman of color,” said Shimamura, who is of Japanese and Puerto Rican descent. “But until you actually go through it, it puts it in a whole different perspective.”
Closing the Gaps
Shimamura’s plan builds on recommendations made by birth equity task forces at the state and municipal level in recent years — such as supporting the education of Black doctors by creating scholarships.
Another proposal would create student-loan forgiveness programs for underrepresented people going into the field of maternal healthcare, as a state task force recommended last year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the task force in 2018, the same year New York City First Lady Chirlaine McCray published a four-point “comprehensive plan” to address the city’s maternal mortality crisis.
Since then, New York has taken some baby steps forward, including a 2019 law that creates a state review board to review all maternal deaths and make recommendations to the state Department of Health on prevention.
The city similarly pledged to review data on serious maternal health complications “to identify problem areas in care and incorporate best practices to improve patient outcomes,” as well as to launch “practice drills” for hospital staff.
Shimamura is also calling for universal access to doula services, currently only available to Medicaid recipients in Buffalo and Brooklyn, and advocating to extend pregnancy Medicaid coverage for a full year, up from the current 60 days.
And she and the other signers are demanding expansion of an existing law that requires every hospital in the state to post annual birth-procedure statistics. They want to add reporting on maternal, fetal and child deaths as well as maternal injuries during childbirth, and break down details by the mother’s race and ethnicity.
Disparities ‘A Moral and Political Stain’
Obtaining timely information on maternal deaths is especially urgent for candidates in The Bronx and Brooklyn, where a city Department Health and Mental Hygiene survey covering 2011 through 2015 found new mothers were likeliest to die.
The Bronx saw 27 maternal deaths in that period, the study determined, compared to 15 for Manhattan, among only slightly more births. The study also found Black women were eight times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than white women, and that 70% of all women who died used Medicaid for health insurance.
Far more frequent than maternal deaths are severe complications for over than 2,000 women a year in New York City — most commonly pulmonary embolisms, hypertensive disorders, another city health department study found.
Elisa Crespo, who’s running for the seat likely to be vacated by City Council member and congressional nominee Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), has signed onto the maternal mortality pledge.
“The Bronx, as a borough, is the epicenter of this crisis, and it’s important for Bronx candidates to talk about this,” said Crespo. “This crisis is a moral and political stain on New York City and the state of New York as a whole.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Rita Joseph, another signatory, who is running for the Flatbush City Council district that will be vacated by term-limited Council member Mathieu Eugene (D-Brooklyn).
That district is home to SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which was spotlighted in a 2017 ProPublica investigation for its high rate of complications during delivery.
‘Alarming and Egregious’
“The disproportionate rates at which Black women and women of color are affected by preventable pregnancy-related complications is alarming and egregious,” Joseph said in a statement to THE CITY. “I am committed to eradicating the systemic racism in healthcare which allows for these tragedies that no one should ever have to endure.”
A global collaborative study published in 2017 by the medical journal The Lancet found that the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world — a trend that’s steadily increased over the last two decades.
“It doesn’t have to be this way — maternal death is not an inevitability, especially in a country as wealthy as the U.S.,” the Council candidates’ proposal declares. “Addressing this crisis begins with valuing women’s health, increasing access to healthcare and family planning services, and investing in low-income and minority communities.”
“My situation just highlights that there is often a power issue, of who is in control and who is not in these situations,” Shimamura told THE CITY. “Maybe that doctor dismissed my pain because I’m a woman, or maybe it was because of my insurance level, or maybe it was my skin color.
“But ultimately I think there is a huge imbalance of power in our healthcare system and that’s what needs to be addressed.”
‘Refunding’ The People
Crespo proposes funding the proposals outlined by the plan, in part, by using funds divested from the NYPD — and “refunding the people,” she said.
“This is a life-and-death situation for Black women and we can absolutely find money for this,” she said. “I’m tired of The Bronx being the sickest, poorest, hungriest borough.”
Crystal Hudson, who is vying for the North and Central Brooklyn seat to be vacated by her former boss, term-limited Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, said she’s determined to turn the manifesto she co-signed into action.
“I think we have a really bad habit of creating task forces but not following with the recommendations that they put forward,” Hudson said. “And in terms of funding, we need to be reallocating funds from the NYPD into services. We can’t just rely on implicit bias trainings when people’s lives are on the line.”
Asked about her colleague’s suggestions to use money divested from the NYPD to fund the plan, Shimamura said she was “100% on board.”
“This is not simply a question of funding, it’s a question of where our priorities are,” she said. “And when we invest in preventative measures, when we invest in healthy communities, it’s an investment that pays off in a million other ways down the line.”