Texas Tribune | Reporting and writing by Marissa Evans | Data analysis by Chris Essig
January 16, 2018
In the photos flashing on the projector screen, Michelle Zavala had a look of serenity.
In one, her eyes were closed as she smiled with her newborn daughter Clara nestled under her chin. Another showed her kissing her husband Chris on vacation. Another captured her laughing while stomping grapes at a vineyard, radiating the positivity that people loved about her.
Below the screen, Michelle lay in a casket, surrounded by bouquets of flowers. The Pflugerville woman died in July — just nine days after giving birth to Clara — from a blood clot in her heart. She was 35.
Across the United States, maternal mortality — when a mother dies from pregnancy-related complications while pregnant or within 42 days of giving birth — jumped by 27 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to a 2016 study published in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.
But researchers were stunned by Texas, where the maternal mortality rate had apparently doubled between 2010 and 2012. That year, 148 women died as the state’s mortality rate hit its highest level since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recordkeeping with its current disease codes in 1999.
The study’s authors called the increase troubling and difficult to explain “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval.”
But the state’s real maternal mortality rate is now a matter of debate. Although the Department of State Health Services website shows that Texas’ maternal mortality rate was 35.2 per 100,000 births between 2012 and 2015 using CDC data, agency officials now say that the number of mothers who died during that period is actually more than 30 percent lower — 24.3 deaths per 100,000 births — thanks to a new methodology the state recently began using to calculate deaths. While state officials say the new, lower mortality rate is more accurate, they stopped short of calling it the official maternal mortality rate because the new methodology is still being refined.
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