One Mother's Death: Shalon's Story

With enormous maternal dignity and composure, Wanda Irving recounted her daughter's final days before complications of childbirth took her life in 2017. The case of Shalon Irving has drawn wide attention to the hazards of maternal morbidity for black mothers. "We were travel buddies and best friends," her mother said.
With enormous maternal dignity and composure, Wanda Irving recounted her daughter's final days before complications of childbirth took her life in 2017. The case of Shalon Irving has drawn wide attention to the hazards of maternal morbidity for black mothers. "We were travel buddies and best friends," her mother said.

 

At left, Wanda Irving and daughter Shalon on one of their numerous excursions. A lieutenant commander in the Public Health Service, Shalon sensed something was wrong shortly after she delivered baby Soleil. But a cascade of conditions quickly overwhelmed her heart.
At left, Wanda Irving and daughter Shalon on one of their numerous excursions. A lieutenant commander in the Public Health Service, Shalon sensed something was wrong shortly after she delivered baby Soleil. But a cascade of conditions quickly overwhelmed her heart.

 

Shalon Irving was curious, precocious, immensely talented and prepared even at a young age to succeed in everything she did. 

A Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a CDC epidemiologist, she earned a dual doctorate in sociology and gerontology; was an accomplished author and talented chef; skilled photographer and inveterate world traveler; and an ecstatic mother-to-be.

Just three weeks after giving birth to her daughter, however, Irving suffered complications from high blood pressure and died in February 2017. She was just 36.

Today, her mother Wanda Irving is raising her 17-month-old granddaughter Soleil.

On Tuesday, at HRSA's international conference on Maternal Mortality, Wanda Irving spoke about the loss of a daughter she described as a "modern-day Renaissance woman."

Quietly determined, Shalon's mother came to 5600 "to put a face to what decades of research has shown": that the perils of maternity can extend well beyond the weeks or months following childbirth -- and that clinicians should be acutely attuned to the fact that the risks of maternity can vary widely by patients' ethnic and racial background ... and even small symptoms can be harbingers of catastrophe.

Gesture of appreciation:  From right, Dr. George Sigounas with baby Soleil; Wanda Irving; MCHB's Laura Kavanagh and LCDR Leticia Manning; and RADM Kerry Nesseler (OGH). "For your dedication to improve the health of women and families worldwide."
Gesture of appreciation: From right, Dr. George Sigounas with baby Soleil; Wanda Irving; MCHB's Laura Kavanagh and LCDR Leticia Manning; and RADM Kerry Nesseler (OGH). "For your dedication to improve the health of women and families worldwide."

 

African American women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy complications than non-Hispanic white women – seemingly irrespective of academic or economic attainment, which were previously thought by some to be "protective" against a range of maternal health problems.

"Black women are not being seen or heard when it comes to their health," Irving said, "especially during and after pregnancy."

Said Shalon herself in her Twitter Profile: "I see inequity wherever it exists, call it by name, and work to eliminate it."

Reflecting Shalon's case, the CDC reports that African American mothers aged 35 to 39 are almost twice as likely to die of pregnancy complications as women in their twenties. And authorities as varied as the U.K.'s National Health Service, which is facing a surge in older women giving birth, see it as a primary risk factor, especially for black women.

The pregnancy-related mortality ratio for non-Hispanic white women as recently as 2013 was 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births  – but more than triple that for black women. The rate for women of some other races was nominally higher than for white women.

Wanda Irving is certain that her daughter's death was preventable, and experts at the summit have argued that post-delivery care in the U.S. and elsewhere is often too limited to catch some later-stage complications.

The question will forever haunt me:
how did she end up a statistic?

- Wanda Irving

"If race were not the precursor to how people are dealt with in the health care system, I know this outcome would have been drastically different," Wanda Irving said.

Shalon learned she was pregnant while posted with the Corps to Puerto Rico on a Zika deployment, her mother recounted. She did not take her pregnancy lightly.

Rather, Shalon "did everything right," her mother said.

She returned home immediately, tested negative for Zika, and saw her obstetrician regularly; her mother reported that Shalon was well aware her pregnancy would be high-risk: she took medication daily, having been previously diagnosed with "Factor V Leiden," a mutation that can increase a mom's chances of developing blood clots. 

At the same time, she put together an extensive "birth plan," writing all manner of questions and answers: what music should be played in the delivery room; who should be allowed to visit; what conversations should be taking place there, and much more.

To her mother, the memory is bittersweet. "The question of whether a post-partum plan would have drastically changed the outcome also continues to haunt me."

Shalon gave birth to Soleil by cesarean in January, 2017 – and thought her daughter was "perfect."

Shalon knew something was wrong.
- Wanda Irving

The joy was short-lived, though, as Shalon experienced high blood pressure, bladder issues, weight gain and headaches for which she made repeated visits to her clinic.

Five hours after a Jan. 21 medical visit, Shalon collapsed.  One week later, she was removed from life support.

Today, Wanda and young Soleil say 'good morning to mommy' every morning to Shalon's picture on the wall.

"My granddaughter did not get a chance to know her amazing mother," Wanda says. But buoyed  by friends and strangers alike, who say that Shalon's death has ignited a passion to reduce maternal mortality, she has found solace in activism.

In the District of Columbia, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation, a prominent health care industry official credited Shalon's Story with helping to establish the city's first-ever Maternal Mortality Review Committee -- long sought by advocates nationally.

"It is up to us, the living, to make post-partum care 'the fourth trimester,' " Wanda says.

To hear the entirety of Wanda Irving's remarks, view the video:

 

View more video highlights of the summit.

Date Last Reviewed:  June 2018