“Lea Davies wasn’t a priority.” So said Dr. Devon Pravesh (Manish Dayal) on Monday night’s episode of The Resident, a fast-moving, gripping procedural drama on Fox starring The Good Wife’s Matt Czuchry, Malcolm Jamal Warner as Dr. AJ Austin, and Shaunette Renée Wilson as Dr. Mina Okafor.
Monday’s episode, “If Not Now, When?” is dedicated to Kira Johnson, a young, accomplished, African-American woman who died in childbirth at Cedars-Sinai almost three years ago to the date. Charles Johnson, her widower, who has two young sons (ages 3 and 5), tirelessly advocates and amplifies the issue of maternal mortality through 4Kira4Moms, and worked extensively with The Resident’s writers to produce an authentic look at what might happen to a black woman giving birth in the United States today.
“Truthfully, we’re trying to take an issue that’s very important and personalize it with one story—because that’s how people can understand them,” Amy Holden Jones, co-creator and executive producer of The Resident, told The Root. Holden Jones, who also co-wrote the episode, continued: “When you’re just throwing statistics, people don’t understand. Put a face to it, put a story to it, and you begin to see a situation, a wrong that needs to be righted, and something that can be done.”
The show got the harrowing statistics of black maternal mortality in through dialogue, and touched on much of what is wrong with the medical field today: from the arrogance of doctors, made quite obvious when an older, white male OB/GYN asks Indian-American resident, Dr. Pravesh, “How long have you been in this country?” to which Pravesh dryly replies, “I’m from New Jersey”; to overtaxed residents; hospitals being run as businesses; lax or no protocols around maternal health; and how unconscious bias can lead to the absolute worst results.
Charles Johnson told The Root that Fox’s VP of Programming, Reena Singh, reached out to him last fall after he testified in support of H.R. 1318, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 16, 2018. He says that he was in Los Angeles meeting with writers about a week after that initial conversation.
“I went out there and spent probably about four hours, talking through Kira and my story, about the event that took place on April 12 at Cedars-Sinai, and the impact it’s had on our family, some of the things I think are the root causes, some of the consistent things that I’ve seen and heard from families who have lost women,” Charles said. “And then also, much to their credit, we had a very candid conversation about the racial disparities and the role that I felt race played [in Kira’s death], and how I feel that biases are a contributing factor across the board to women of color. And so I was so fortunate, this is not something where they just took our story and ran with it.”
Johnson, who like many of us, didn’t know the extent of black women dying during childbirth, or up to a year after, sees the value in using popular culture to expose what he deems this country’s shame.
“I am very much a private person. I don’t particularly like the spotlight. And just to be quite honest with you, I didn’t know if sharing our story was the right thing to do. But I knew I had to do something when I realized that we were smack in the middle of this maternal mortality crisis,” he said.
“In fact, when this happened to me, when this happened to us, I thought that Kira was an outlier. I thought that a woman who was perfectly healthy in 2016, having access to care, walking into a hospital like Cedars-Sinai and not walking out was an anomaly. And then to come to find out, there are hundreds of women just like her, and this is American’s dirty little secret.”
Indeed. It’s a “secret” that shocks the system and exposes the very worst of what can happen when the stress of racism, sexism, and all the intersections of being a black woman in the United States collides with an American healthcare system that is inherently, dangerously biased against people who are not white, rich, heterosexual and male.
“The United States is the most dangerous place in the developed world to give birth in. There’s no excuse for that,” notes Chief Resident Dr. Randolph Bell (Bruce Greenwood) to the hospital’s board by episode’s end.
Of course, The Resident, being fictional, can “fix” or work towards fixing issues around maternal mortality and morbidity at Chastain, and set up a Review Board, as well as a new standard of care “to prevent all forms of bias, racial or otherwise,” he said.
The real world, alas, moves a little slower, but the fact that women are out here dying, black women particularly, in what should be a routine procedure is, in a word, unacceptable.
One of the main things that Charles Johnson advocates are protocols to be put in place around maternal care in all hospitals to ensure that every woman giving birth herself has the best chance at life.
“There actually is a solution. Those systems and those protocols exist for most of the things that go on in medicine,” Holden Jones said. “For surgery, if you go into the ER with chest pains, there’s a whole series of things that kick in automatically, and because they exist, even unconscious bias will be defeated because you have to follow that system of protocols. There is no protocol for childbirth. And they would have saved Kira if [there had been.]”
Johnson, who admitted that watching the show was at times difficult and somewhat surreal, is still happy with the result and by his amazing wife, who continues to touch lives.
“Hopefully this will move people and it will resonate with people far beyond anything I could do by myself,” he says. “But it was tough. I don’t want to give spoilers, but the actors did an amazing job of capturing the moments, of capturing the emotions of it, and I can’t say enough about the job they did.”
The Resident episode inspired by Kira Johnson airs tonight, Monday, April 15 on Fox at 8 p.m. ET/Central. There will be a “fireside chat” with Charles Johnson, members of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) and perhaps an actor or two immediately following the airing on 4Kira4Moms’s Facebook page and IG live.