Has US healthcare forgotten Black mothers? Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader dies after delivering stillborn daughter

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Krystal Lakeshia Anderson, a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, died on March 20 after giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Anderson developed sepsis during pregnancy. 

  • Her death has spotlighted a harsh reality: The maternal mortality rate in the United States is on the rise, with Black women three times more likely than White women to experience pregnancy-related deaths. 

  • Experts believe that this health crisis requires multilayered work, including openly addressing systemic racism, expanding access to healthcare, and improving physician burnout.

A former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, Krystal Lakeshia Anderson, died on March 20 after developing sepsis during pregnancy and delivering a stillborn daughter. Her story has cast a spotlight on a growing crisis: Maternal mortality rates are increasing, particularly for Black patients.[] 

Anderson, 40, was hospitalized during her 21st week of pregnancy. After giving birth, Anderson experienced organ failure and was placed on life support. She underwent several surgeries, but doctors were unsure of the source of the infection. Anderson previously lost another pregnancy at 20 weeks.[]

According to a GoFundMe page set up in her honor, Anderson was passionate about women’s healthcare rights and believed “fervently that healthcare is too important to stay the same.” In addition to her work as a cheerleader, Anderson was also a software engineer at Oracle Health,  where she helped develop software that assesses the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.[][] 

Maternal sepsis is a life-threatening condition caused by an infection during pregnancy, delivery, puerperium, or after an abortion, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology MFM.  Sepsis can result in both fetal and maternal death, and variables like economic access, race, and medical history play a role in its incidence.[] 

In the US, the maternal mortality rate is consistently rising. Between 2014 and 2021, maternal mortality in the US nearly doubled, with the largest increase occurring between 2019 and 2021.[][]

When it comes to Black patients—and older patients—the numbers are even higher. A 2023 review published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities found that maternal mortality “continues to increase despite medical advances and is exacerbated by stark racial disparities.” Black women are three times more likely, the review found, to experience a pregnancy-related death compared to non-Hispanic White women. Women aged 40 and older experience a 6.8 times higher risk of death compared to women under 25.[][] 

As of 2020, women living in countries with low- or lower-middle incomes also experienced higher death rates—even though most of these deaths could have been prevented, says the World Health Organization.[] 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health, non-Hispanic Black/African American infants have 2.4 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic Whites.[]

What can be done to stop the maternal mortality rate from rising for Black women and their infants?

The crisis is unfortunate and frustrating, says Jagdish Khubchandani, MD, Professor of Public Health at New Mexico State University. He points to the fact that among several other developed nations, the US has higher maternal mortality rates (especially among Black women) despite its citizens paying more for healthcare.[] 

“So, the obvious question is: Why do we have the highest healthcare spending in the world if the outcomes are so poor? How are smaller countries with a lower GDP doing better, and how is this still an ongoing issue?” Dr. Khubchandani asks. 

The answer is complex, he says. It’s an amalgam of individual, interpersonal, and social influences. “At the individual level, there is a level of disadvantage that Black women may suffer from early years of life, which continues into adulthood,” he explains. He notes a lack of access to healthy food, housing, and quality education, as well as high levels of poverty. 

“At the interpersonal level, there is exposure to stressors like racism, discrimination, lack of appropriate care and guidance from health providers, and domestic violence,” Dr. Khubchandani says. “And at the community and organizational levels, there is [a] lack of healthcare infrastructure, neighborhood dysfunction and deprivation, [and] lower opportunities for well-paying jobs.”

Myechia Minter-Jordan, MD, MBA, the president and CEO of CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, echoes these sentiments. “This is the result of generations of structural racism and inequitable access to high-quality, comprehensive care. Health systems rooted in decades of discriminatory policies and narrow, culturally incompetent views of health and wellness are not well-equipped to address these disparities or adequately support Black parents,” Dr. Minter-Jordan says. 

Dr. Minter-Jordan believes that expanding Medicaid could help provide support to Black women. “Medicaid benefits for pregnant people vary widely by state and, in many cases, Medicaid coverage may extend only 60 days postpartum, even though 50% of maternal deaths occur up to a year after giving birth,” she says. 

Danielle Wright-Terrell, MD, an OB/GYN for the US Air Force and the CEO of HONEY, a postpartum support platform, says that the stats around the maternal mortality rate for Black women paint a grim picture. “It's a full-blown public health crisis,” Dr. Wright-Terrell says, “[and] we need a multipronged attack to address this.”

Dr. Wright-Terrell says that Advil's new Believe My Pain campaign, which is focused on illuminating the issue of pain inequity in Black communities, is a great example of how raising awareness is key. 

But awareness isn’t enough, she says. “We need innovation in healthcare delivery. Telemedicine is a good start, but let's take it further. Integrating biometric data with telemedicine appointments can significantly improve access to care, particularly in rural and underserved areas.”

More so, Dr. Wright-Terrell says, physician burnout must be addressed. “Frankly, the current system with VC-backed, for-profit groups stretches OB/GYNs thin. Seeing 30 to 40 patients in 15-minute slots is not quality care; it's a recipe for burnout and ultimately compromises patient safety. We need a system that prioritizes quality care over volume.” Additionally, she says, board certification should be a must for physicians working with pregnant women. 

“By tackling these issues head-on—implicit bias training, improved access to care through telemedicine advancements, reduced physician burnout, and revamped continuing medical education programs—we can build a healthcare system that truly serves all women and significantly reduces these racial disparities in maternal health outcomes,” she says. 

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