Report Detailing Mom's Postpartum Death Highlights Why Women Must Be Their Own Advocates
“It’s pre-eclampsia,” I said to my husband. It was 2013, two years before we even began trying for a baby, and we were watching a very pregnant Lady Sybil complain of a persistent headache on Downton Abbey. Growing up with a nurse for a mother plants a seed of intrigue for all things medical. Combine that with my passion for Call the Midwife and it was easy enough to deduce that Lady Sybil wasn’t going to make it past the birth of her child.
It took me a while into adulthood to realize that not everyone is equipped with the same level of medical knowledge that I have. I find that horrifying, not because I’m prideful but because in the day and age of big medicine patients are required to be their own best advocates. Anyone who has gone through, or closely witnessed a loved one go through the medical system has firsthand knowledge of how quickly and easily medical professionals can make life-threatening errors. Take, for instance, Dr. John Vaclavik of Monmouth, N.J., recently profiled in the NPR story Focus On Infants During Childbirth Leaves U.S. Moms In Danger. In 2011 Dr. Vaclavik discharged one new mother with a severely infected vaginal tear; soon she was back in the hospital with necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria that killed her. Vaclavik’s legal answer for why he discharged a woman with a severe infection? It was the nurses’ fault:
According to court documents, he said nurses failed to inform him about Hansen's symptoms and that if he'd known her vital signs weren't stable, he wouldn't have released her.
His colleague, friend, and patient, nurse Lauren Bloomstein, was unaware of this gross medical error when she decided to have Vaclavik deliver her baby later that same year. Bloomstein’s story is a list of tragic circumstances: Vaclavik misdiagnosed severe belly pain as acid reflux; her doctor-husband Larry was hesitant to ask questions lest he “overstep” his bounds; labor and delivery took place on a weekend. The last one is especially frightening, but the reality is that the best doctors and nurses don’t want to work weekends and the ones who do are anxious to get in and out and on with their lives:
Hospitals may be staffed differently on weekends, adding to the challenges of managing a crisis. A new Baylor College of Medicine analysis of 45 million pregnancies in the U.S. from 2004 to 2014 found mothers who deliver on Saturday or Sunday have nearly 50 percent higher mortality rates as well as more blood transfusions and more perineal tearing. The "weekend effect" has also been associated with higher fatality rates from heart attacks, strokes and head trauma.
Vaclavik was only “on call” that weekend. His actual presence at the hospital is not detailed, but the way the story reads indicates he was largely participating in postpartum care via phone. And despite receiving advice from a colleague via phone to get his wife treated by specialists immediately, Larry Bloomstein “had given up on getting a specialist to come to the hospital so late on a Saturday night.”