faith in action

Saving mothers' lives

Dr. Kathy Hartke is an OB-GYN and a United Methodist. At the end of Sunday worship, her pastor says, "Go out and change the world." She takes that call seriously.

Becoming a doctor

I am an OB-GYN and have had the privilege of caring for women for 35 years. I have supported them through some of their most personal situations. I have delivered thousands of babies. I have helped women deal with infertility, surgeries, cancer, addiction and mental health problems.

Many experiences have led me to where I am today.

Both of my parents worked in the medical field. Dad ran the blood bank, and mom worked at the hospital laboratory. I was five when I told my dad I wanted to be a doctor while driving past a college in Dubuque, Iowa.

My mom went into labor with my brother, her fourth child, on my 10th birthday. Labor progressed rapidly while my dad drove my siblings and me to a friend’s home. By the time my dad returned home, my mom had delivered my brother on the kitchen floor, alone.

Growing up, our church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, supported a missionary in Sierra Leone. Gertrude Bloede was a nurse midwife who delivered 901 babies. She spoke at our church about the conditions for mothers in Africa and how she and others were saving lives. She returned from Africa in 1965 to work in the Red Bird Mission in Kentucky. Our family had the opportunity to visit her there. I was so inspired.

I went through confirmation at 12 and was required to speak about what Jesus meant to me. I shared what the Bible taught me about Jesus and how we also could be teachers. I said, “You can be a missionary right in your own city or even in your own neighborhood.” This idea continues to encourage me to care for those in need.

While in high school, a counselor suggested that medicine was not a good career for women and families. So instead, I went to college and studied Music and subsequently joined the Air Force Band with my husband. But, my passion for medicine grew stronger. When I saw a friend deliver twins, I knew I wanted to be an OB-GYN.

From there, I traveled three hours each way every weekend for three years to complete premed and was accepted at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

In my third year — while I was eight months pregnant myself — I attended my first birth. It was a blessing and a miracle.

Saving mothers’ lives

But, not all mothers have access to quality prenatal and delivery care. I quickly saw the effects race and class have on moms and babies while working as a resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Even with the best care, not all mothers and infants survive.

Five days after my daughter’s second delivery, she called me from her home in Illinois and was hemorrhaging. Helpless to assist, I told her to call the ambulance, and she got to the hospital in time after losing a lot of blood. I could only pray for her life, and God answered my prayer. Her medical team saved her life.

Sadly, we cannot save all lives, but we can do better.

Maternal mortality

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized nation. The rate in Finland in 2015 was 3.8 deaths for every 100,000 live births. The U.S. was nearly seven times higher at 26.4 deaths per 100,000 live births in the same year. Not only that, the U.S. is the only developed country where maternal deaths are increasing. For every death, there are 70 “near misses.”

I’ve seen many of these in my own practice.

One mother had such severely high blood pressure with a pre-viable fetus that we needed to induce labor to save the mother’s life. One mom was brought in by ambulance after choking at home. She was pronounced dead, and we did a post-mortem cesarean section, but the baby died also. One of my young mothers was murdered by her husband.

I saw many pregnant teens and would lay awake in the call room at night trying to understand how to break this cycle. The youngest girl was 10 years old, a survivor of incest and too young to risk her life with pregnancy. She had an abortion.

Incest and human trafficking are significant problems in this country and disproportionately impact women. Domestic violence is more common during and after pregnancy. Suicide and drug overdose kill more women than any single common obstetrical cause of death, including hemorrhage, high blood pressure, infection, blood clots and stroke. Regardless of socioeconomic status, black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy.

My call, our call

At the end of every Sunday service, our pastor says, “Go out and change the world.” I take that call seriously.

That’s why I am the legislative co-chair of the Wisconsin section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In this role, I advocate for women’s health care and seek to give voice to women who are living in poverty and underserved. Last month, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with more than 600 obstetricians and gynecologists to ask our elected officials to help us advance bipartisan legislation to combat the rising rate of maternal mortality in this country – H.R. 1318, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act/ S. 1112, the Maternal Health Accountability Act.

This work is very much a part of my faith.

We have the tools to save the lives of women and infants. Now, we must build the political will to enact laws and fund programs that will help the women and children in our communities.

Join me in advocating for laws and funds that will save the lives of women and infants.

Call now

Call the congressional switchboard at 202.224.3121 three times. Ask to speak with your representative on the first call and then call back two more times to speak with your senators.

Ask each member to help end preventable maternal mortality by supporting H.R. 1318, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act and S. 1112, the Maternal Health Accountability Act. America’s mothers deserve better.

By supporting this bill, Congress will create a dedicated program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help states establish or sustain their maternal mortality review committees. The review committees are the first step in improving maternal health outcomes and ending preventable maternal death, and we need Congress to pass this legislation now.

We must put our faith in action. Call now. 202.224.3121