If you Google Christine Jehle Kim, you will not find that she was a mother of two who had just been accepted into medical school (or, if things had been different, that she was a mother of three graduated from medical school). You’ll also find she was memorialized on the Safe Motherhood Quilt Project (pictured above), the heart-child of midwife Ina May Gaskin. This October will mark the thirtieth anniversary of my sister’s death. Had she survived her third pregnancy, today she would be a grandmother of eight, celebrating her 62nd birthday on February 16, 2020.
It was a dark rainy morning in Maui. My children were sitting down to breakfast. I was in the garden having just milked Lizziebell, our goat, when my dear friend, Margo Berdeshevsky, appeared. The look on her face was all I needed to know that someone had asked her to come. She had come to tell me something so painful it would shatter my world.
I don’t know how I ended up on my knees in the mud. I’m pretty sure that I tore Margo’s blouse. The scene certainly frightened my children.
“Not my baby sister. No, No, NO!”
Not the baby sister whom my mother had placed into my 15-month-old arms with this mandate, “You must protect her. She came down to Earth to be with you.”
So, why was I living in Hawaii and she, all grown up, living in Alabama? Like twins conjoined at the heart, hadn’t we slept together nearly every night of our childhood? In middle school our parents gave us twin beds, and placed them on opposite sides of our wonderfully decorated “girls’” room. We pushed the beds together and used my father’s old army belts to lash our legs one to the other so that we would not drift apart at night.
Christine Jehle Kim was thirty-two and eight months and pregnant with her third child when she died. But her death began long before then; it began in the winter of 1961 when she was struck down by pneumonia. Her military doctors prescribed large doses of cortisone to strengthen her so that she would pull through. Christine returned home so bloated that, to my four and a half year old eyes, she appeared lost inside of herself.
“Where are you Chrissy? Are you in there?”
Chrissy was in there, but she was now twice as large as I remembered her from when they took her away just three weeks before. From that time on, for the rest of her short life, she would struggle with a weight problem diagnosed by doctors as a hormone imbalance. She was poked and prodded, tested, put on crash diets. A balloon was put in her stomach and, at some tragic juncture, doctors stitched up a part of her digestive tract, all to no avail. At any given meal, Christine, though more than double my weight, ate less than half of what I consumed. My sister’s weight problem was iatrogenic. Her weight would contribute to the complication of her pregnancy that would eventually kill her in her sleep.
While I grew up healthy, strong and slim, Christine grew out, and was chastised for being “fatso.” Already marginalized by cruel classmates for being mixed raced kids, it became routine for me to fight off Christine’s persecutors at the school bus stop.
Fast forward thirty years… we can still read the same shameful statistics in Amnesty International’s report Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Crisis in the USA. Unfortunately, I can imagine the suffering that families experience in the USA caused by the loss of the two to three women — mothers — who die every day in pregnancy and childbirth. Women who are not elderly, or unwell, these mothers are dying in the prime of their lives, because they are having a baby.
The total amount spent on health care in the USA is greater than in any other country in the world. Hospitalization related to pregnancy and childbirth costs some USD $86 billion a year; the highest hospitalization costs of any area of medicine. Despite this, women in the USA have a greater lifetime risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than women in 40 other countries. For example, the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth in the USA is five times greater than in Greece, four times greater than in Germany, and three times greater than in Spain.” (Deadly Delivery, Amnesty International 2010)
The same Amnesty International report states that maternal mortality ratios have doubled since 1987, and that women of color are more at risk. Minorities, those living in poverty, Native American and immigrant women and those who speak little or no English are particularly affected.
If we compare maternal health care in the United States with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon the pig would say, “All pregnant women are equal but some are more equal than others.”
My sister, Filipino-Polynesian on Mother’s side, Swedish-Irish on Father’s side, married a Korean man. My sister’s English was perfect, but her husband was still learning the language. They were a struggling young family and had to tighten their belts just to afford health-care insurance. Yes, my sister had medical insurance.
In one of the last long-distance phone conversations I had with Christine, she told me that she was expecting a baby. She, her husband Hondo and their two sons, Nick (5) and Gary (3) were elated by the pregnancy. We talked about prenatal nutrition. She pointed out to me that my book that I had been working on, “After The Baby’s Birth… A Woman’s Way To Wellness” (Celestial Arts 10 Speed Press, 1991) would be released just in time for her to be one of the first postpartum moms to enjoy it. Christine felt this new baby would be a girl.
“I feel so different this time, somehow I know we are going to have a daughter. I’m going to name her after Mommy, Cresencia,” she told me. My sister had only one complaint.
“I can’t find a midwife that will do my birth. They all risk me out because of my weight. And I keep changing doctors because none of them really cares about me.” How I wished in that moment, that my sister could be cared for by my skilled midwives in Hawaii, Tina Garzero, Jan Francisco and Katie Mourningstar.
My baby sister’s death is a shameful statistic. When Christine and the daughter she was carrying died, I was shattered, but I did not get angry. She taught me that. She wasn’t an angry person. In fact, I cannot recall her even speaking ill of someone, ever. Instead of getting angry, I chose to live my life for love, no compromises. I became a midwife.
Three days ago I stopped a near fatal hemorrhage and yesterday I helped stop a miscarriage. At 4 a.m. I rode in the Bumi Sehat ambulance to hospital with a mother who had HEELP Syndrome. Her life was saved, and she was never separated from her baby. All of us can do something, we can make a postpartum meal for a lonely new mother. We can take a CPR class at our local hospital. We can study to become doulas (women who mother the mother and offer continuous non-medical support to mothers in pregnancy, labor and postpartum).
I grumble with concern over the UN Millennium Development Goals: #3 Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women; #4 Reduce Child Mortality Rate; #5 Improve Maternal Health. I must admit I was desperately hopeful that we would achieve these goals by 2015. I was and am disappointed, but not discouraged. I, like BirthKeepers all over our Earth, are prepared to work our entire lives to achieve the vision of safe, gentle, loving, kind, respectful, affordable reproductive healthcare, for ALL.
Recently, my sister’s son Nick became a father. My sister will never lovingly hold her grandson, and my grandnephew will never know just how amazing his grandmother was. Her love was unnecessarily lost to him, and that is a shameful thing.
To learn more, go to the Yayasan Bumi Sehat (Healthy Mother Earth Foundation website. For further reading on the revolution in human rights in childbirth, visit internationalchildbirth.com.