Leading advocate against maternal mortality and morbidity speaks at Gaddipati Lecture

Charles Johnson shares his wife’s story, and discusses legislative action taken to prevent future maternal deaths

Charles Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, was an honored speaker at the annual Sree Gaddipati, MD Memorial Lecture on May 19, 2022.
Charles Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, was an honored speaker at the annual Sree Gaddipati, MD Memorial Lecture on May 19, 2022.

Charles Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, which works to end the maternal mortality crisis in the United States, delivered an inspiring and passionate presentation to the Ob/Gyn department at the annual Sree Gaddipati, MD Memorial Lecture on May 19, 2022. This was the first in-person Gaddipati lecture since 2019, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson’s presentation, titled “And Then She Was Gone,” tells the harrowing story of losing his wife, Kira Dixon Johnson, to complications after the birth of their second child at a California hospital in 2016. After delivering a healthy baby boy via routine cesarean section, the couple were waiting in recovery when Johnson noted blood in her catheter bag, a sign of postpartum hemorrhage.

According to Johnson, he and Kira waited for hours to receive treatment, escalating their pleas for intervention to staff and physicians, even as physicians toured her bedside with trainees to discuss her condition, to no avail. A surgical emergency CT scan was ordered, but never performed, and Kira’s condition further declined. When Kira was finally brought into the operating room, she was found to have more than three liters of blood in her abdomen. She ultimately died in surgery.

Kira is among the more than 800 women who die each year in childbirth or from childbirth complications, around 60 percent of which are preventable deaths, but she and each of those women are more than a number, Johnson said.

“When I walked into that hospital on April 12, 2016, the thought that my wife might not walk out of there to raise our boys didn’t ever cross my mind,” Johnson said. “There’s no statistic that can quantify what it’s like to tell an 18-month-old that his mommy’s not coming home. We spend so much time focused on the data, but there’s no data point that can begin the calculate how hard it is to tell a son who would never know his mother just how amazing she was.”

Kira was Black, a fact which Johnson believes contributed to her death. The maternal mortality crisis disproportionately affects Black women, who are around 3 times more likely to die in childbirth than White women, according to a 2022 report released by the Centers for Disease Control. These disparities also rose during the pandemic.

Johnson, right, with Mary D'Alton, MD, Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYP/CUIMC.

Since his wife’s death, Johnson has dedicated himself to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity. He founded the organization 4Kira4Moms, which seeks to educate the public about potential risks associated with childbirth and empower them with the tools they need to remain healthy before, during, and after childbirth. 4Kira4Moms offers support to families who have lost a mother during childbirth, including providing them with necessary supplies like formula and diapers in the first few days after the mother’s death. They also launched a successful partnership with Yelp, a customer review site, to add maternal mortality and morbidity data for every hospital in the state of California to their Yelp pages.

Importantly, Johnson has used his platform to advocate before Congress to pass legislation protecting pregnant and postpartum people. He shared his experiences during the presentation about testifying twice before Congress, advocating on behalf of his organization to support legislation including the Preventing Maternal Death Act of 2018, the Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021, and the California Momnibus, a collection of 13 bills that addresses social determinants of health, implicit bias training, respectful maternity care, how technology can be utilized to better serve mothers, and more.

The legislation has received bi-partisan support even in an exceptionally divided time politically, which Johnson attributes to the broad appeal of protecting mothers.

“There’s only two types of people in this country – either you are a mom, or you have one,” Johnson said. “People who care about the wellbeing of mothers and babies are the largest constituent there is. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, it doesn’t matter where you are socioeconomically, your sexual orientation – mothers and babies have to be a priority. It’s not a women’s health issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

This annual Sreedhar Gaddipati, MD lecture is dedicated to the legacy of Dr. Gaddipati, who was, and remains, an important figure in the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons medical education program. The lecture was established by a generous donation from the Gaddipati family to honor this exceptional teacher and role model, esteemed and beloved physician, revered colleague, and dear friend to the department, who passed away unexpectedly on August 7, 2013.

Dr. Gaddipati joined Columbia University in 2003 as a Clinical Assistant Professor in Maternal-Fetal Medicine and became the Director of Critical Care Obstetrics. He received numerous teaching awards and honors, including the Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology National Faculty Award for Excellence in Resident Education in 2000, 2003, and 2005.