Los Angeles hospital sues for racism over black mother’s death

The husband of a black woman who died hours after giving birth in 2016 sued Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Wednesday, saying she died of blood loss due to a culture of racism at a prominent Los Angeles hospital.

Charles Johnson IV said he found a discrepancy in the care of women of color at Cedars compared to white women during his testimony in his wrongful death lawsuit due next week in Los Angeles Superior Court.

“I have no doubt that my wife would be here today and would be here on Sunday celebrating Mother’s Day with her boys if she were a Caucasian woman,” Johnson said at a press conference outside the hospital. “The reality is that on April 12, 2016, when we entered Cedars-Sinai Hospital for what we expected to be the happiest day of our lives, the biggest risk factor facing Kira Dixon Johnson , was racism.”

Johnson died about 12 hours after a scheduled caesarean section, which was performed in 17 minutes, to give birth to the couple’s second son, Langston.

“This is careless. It was a massacre,” said lawyer Nicholas Rowley. “It shocked everyone that we gave evidence, all the medical staff, even the head (obstetrics) here, the head of labor and delivery, looked at it and said, ‘No, I’ve never seen anyone do this so quickly.’

Despite signs of internal bleeding and her husband’s desperate pleas, Kira Johnson languished for hours without being re-admitted to the operating room until it was too late, the civil rights lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, at one point a nurse told Charles Johnson that his wife was not a priority.

According to Rowley, she died of internal bleeding – almost 90% of her blood was later found in her stomach. Her bladder was ruptured and she was not sewn up properly.

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The hospital, which fought the malpractice lawsuit, said in a statement that it was founded on the principles of diversity and health for all and rejected “any mischaracterization of our culture and values.”

“We are actively working to eliminate unconscious bias in healthcare and promote healthcare equity more broadly,” the statement said. “We thank Mr. Johnson for the attention he has given to the important issue of racial differences in maternal outcomes.”

The death of Kira Johnson prompted her husband to embark on a crusade to reduce maternal mortality, which is especially high among black women.

Before the pandemic, which increased women of color dying during childbirth, black women were 2.5 times more likely to die than white women, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Charles Johnson has testified before Congress and at the Sacramento State Capitol in support of various bills, including a 2019 state law that requires doctors and nurses to identify hidden bias at work, and a recent bill that remove the limit on payments for medical malpractice.

Johnson would not benefit from a change in the malpractice law, which currently limits the reward to $250,000. The case is due to go to court on May 11, although recent court documents have shown both sides are close to reaching an agreement.

The civil rights case will give Johnson another opportunity to recover damages and hold Cedars-Sinai liable. He is also seeking an injunction that would require the hospital to make changes to protect mothers and women of color.

But proving civil rights violations in healthcare is difficult because most laws require discrimination to be intentional, says Brietta Clark, a professor at Loyola Law School.

“Compared to when the civil rights laws were passed, many of the types of unequal treatment we see today in healthcare don’t seem overt,” Clark said. “He doesn’t seem to be conscious.”

The judge rejected Johnson’s attempt to change the malpractice case to add a civil rights suit, in part because the deposition excerpts do not show that the hospital was racially discriminated in its care.

Dr. Kimberly Gregory, an OB/GYN at the hospital, revealed that she lives with “structural racism” every day that prevents black patients from receiving the same care as whites, according to court documents. She also said that Kira Johnson should have returned to the operating room earlier.

Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick, chief of OB/GYN, testified that she told Charles Johnson, “I’m sorry. We let your family down… This shouldn’t have happened.”

Angelique Washington, a black surgical technologist, said “patient safety was at the door” when Kira Johnson entered the operating room.

Washington, who has more than 30 years of experience, said she regularly witnessed different treatment of black women but was afraid to talk about it.

“When I see my black … patients coming in, I pray extra,” Washington said. “I silently pray that everything goes well. Because you have a lot of racism in the operating room.”

Clarke said the evidence the judge found weak was more general allegations and not specifically about discrimination by the service provider. She said a key challenge for Johnson’s legal team would be to demonstrate discrimination.

Rowley said the effort to change things was a long way off. He has since collected other evidence from additional testimony and will be able to request data, such as the number of black women who died in Cedars, to support his claim in a new lawsuit.

“Kira died because she is black,” he said. “Women of color are treated differently than white women. It is a fact”.

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