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Kern County maternal mortality at the center of a state medical board meeting

Demi Dominguez, pictured here, and her newborn Malakhi De Leon died in April 2019 of a severe pregnancy complication.
Kerry Klein
Tracy Dominguez created a memorial to her daughter Demi Dominguez and grandson Malakhi De Leon in the living room of her Bakersfield room. Both died in April 2019.

Following years of advocacy work from locals, the Medical Board of California held a meeting in Bakersfield to learn more about the region’s high maternal mortality rate.

Kern County’s pregnancy-related mortality rate is one of the highest in the state. After years of working to raise awareness about the issue, family members of local mothers and babies who died during childbirth have caught the attention of the state medical board.

The Medical Board of California is the licensing body for the state’s doctors. The agency also investigates malpractice and takes positions for or against legislation. Its board meets every quarter, virtually or sometimes in person in Sacramento, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

But last week, for what an agency representative believes is the first time ever, the board held its quarterly meeting in Bakersfield. And more than half of the two-day affair was devoted to discussions of maternal health.

“We realized that this was a topic, from a broad perspective, that the board just wasn't as educated about as we wanted to be,” said former board president Kristina Lawson to KVPR.

The purpose of the meeting, she said, was “really to educate ourselves, frankly, in response to the public comments we've heard over the past years so that we can help be part of the solution.”

During hours of public comment at the meeting, people shared stories of lost loved ones. That included Bakersfield natives Demi Dominguez and her baby boy Malakhi De Leon, who both died in April 2019 after doctors overlooked warning signs of the pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia, and Sabrina De La Rosa, who was nine months into pregnancy when she died in January 2020 after reportedly being administered fentanyl for pain.

Family members also spoke about April Valentine, who died in January 2023 at a hospital in Los Angeles after suffering a blood clot during delivery. According to the Los Angeles Times, her death prompted a state investigation into her medical care and a $75,000 fine to the hospital where she died.

“These women and also fathers have experienced things that would break most people,” County Supervisor Leticia Perez said during the meeting of those who spoke about their loved ones’ deaths. In the past, Perez has also acknowledged suffering through miscarriages and a harrowing birth experience.

“The fact that this [meeting] is happening here today is really an incredible indicator not only that the organizing is successful, but that important people, the right people, are listening,” she said.

Board members also heard public comment from employees of the advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog, which has been pushing for disciplinary action against a handful of Kern County physicians as well as greater accountability from the medical board itself.

The meeting agenda also featured presentations from a slate of health officials and maternal health experts from around the state. They spoke about efforts to improve maternal health and prepare hospital staff for obstetric emergencies and addressed racial disparities in maternal health. Locally and around the country, maternal mortality rates are highest among Black women.

Kimberly Hernandez, Division Director of Health Services with Kern County Public Health, pointed out that in the last decade, the county’s maternal mortality rate has improved relative to the state average.

“Between 2009 and 2013, the pregnancy related mortality rate in Kern County was about 82% higher than the average across California,” she said. “Between 2016 and 2020, which is the most recent data we have available, that difference is now down to 13%.”

However, death rates locally and statewide are beginning to worsen.

“You can see that after a decline in the early 2010s, there's been a small increase in pregnancy related mortality over the past few years,” Hernandez said. “And this is part of the reason we were all talking about this today.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.