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'It Makes No Sense:' Arizona Moms Dying Preventable Childbirth Deaths

In a recent picture of Vince Garcia and his daughter Arianna Dodde they both smile.

“I hadn’t always or often made the best choices, and that kind of drove a wedge between us,” Garcia said.

The birth of his daughter’s first child about four years ago started to knit their relationship back together.

“I just wanted to be the grandpa that just spoiled the kids,” Garcia said and paused. “I just couldn’t be there enough.”

Garcia was especially excited to welcome his first grandson home last August.

“I was just waiting for her to be like, ‘OK, we’re ready, come over and I never got that call,” Garcia said. 

The same day Dodde was released from the hospital she was readmitted and died. There was internal bleeding and an autopsy showed a torn uterus. Her son survived.

“To be quite honest with you, I still don’t understand,” Garcia said.  “It makes no sense.”

Garcia said is daughter was healthy. The 23-year-old mom of two didn’t have pre-existing conditions. She wasn’t overweight.

In Arizona, an estimated 20 women die for every 100,000 live births. The number may not seem high, but what's alarming is that 89 percent of these deaths are deemed preventable.

Nationally, new moms die at a higher rate than anywhere else in the developed world.

“It's very frustrating and one of our challenges is still not quite understanding all the dynamics around that and how can this be in the U.S. and in Arizona,” said Sheila Sjolander an assistant director at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

A bill moving through the Arizona Senate seeks more comprehensive information about maternal deaths in the state and actionable recommendations. 

'There Wasn’t A Lot Of Data'

Arizona first started examining maternal mortality in 2011 after the passage of a state law requiring it.

“Obviously even back then we had an awareness that this was an issue, but there wasn’t a lot of data,” said Sjolander, who’s worked in the department for 17 years.

A group of public health and medical professionals, all volunteers, started to meet regularly to review deaths of Arizona moms.

The group has held numerous meetings and published two reports that include the following findings:

  • Native American mothers die at highest rates in the state. 28.4 deaths for every 100,000 live births.
  • Cardiac and hypertension disorders are the single largest cause of maternal deaths followed by hemorrhage.
  • 89 percent of maternal deaths are deemed preventable.
  • For every maternal death, 50-100 women have complications from childbirth that have significant impacts on their health.
  • 8 percent of women who give birth in Arizona had no pre-natal care.
  • 55 percent of births are paid for by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

USA Today reported last year 18 states still don’t study maternal deaths.

A Proposed Bill

Shortly after Arianna Dodde’s death, Garcia and his wife Leticia, Dodde’s stepmother, missed a neighborhood block-watch meeting.

“We took up a collection for diapers, necessities for a family trying to cope without a mom,” said Arizona Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, who’s a regular attendee. “It’s just one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever heard."

Brophy McGee, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, was shocked to learn about the high rate of maternal deaths and agreed to sponsor a bill —  Senate Bill 1040— that would require the state to collect and analyze more information.

Current law mandates a group “evaluate the incidence and causes of maternal fatalities associated with pregnancy,” but makes no specific requirements as to how often or how this information is used.

A first draft of the bill called for an annual report.

“I don’t feel that it’s doing enough,” McGee said.

Brophy McGee wants concrete recommendations on how the state will work to stop more new moms from dying.

March of Dimes started lobbying for the bill’s passage and dispatched volunteers to meet with Arizona lawmakers earlier in January.

The bill is being heard in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday and could change as it proceeds through the legislative process. 

Vince Garcia and his wife Leticia have been watching the legislation take shape.

It was Leticia that first reached out Brophy McGee and to the March of Dimes. She even hand-wrote a letter to the governor.

“Hopefully it got to him, because I didn’t make any copies or anything,” Garcia said.  

She’s read countless articles about maternal mortality, researched the hospital where her stepdaughter gave birth.

“You don’t want to sit there and talk about what went wrong — you don’t want to blame,” Leticia said. Still she wonders what could have been different to prevent Dodde from dying.

Leticia now thinks about an acronym — AAAA — Always ask again for Arianna.

Above all, Vince said he remembers how his daughter loved Disneyland, her family and her unshakeable toughness.

When she was elementary school he tried to teach her a little bit of self defense.

“She taught me some things,” Vince said.  “I don’t want to get into detail, but she hurt me pretty good with her foot.”

Two weeks ago, Leticia and Vince went to the Arizona Capitol where they talked to March of Dimes volunteers. Vince hadn’t been since he was in elementary school. Leticia had never visited.

“We need to share our story, because not only does there need to be change, but there needs to be awareness that if someone is pregnant, not to take it for granted,” Garcia said.  

This story was reported with help from nonprofit newsroom ProPublica. Their series, " Lost Mothers," further details the picture of maternal mortality in the United States.

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Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.