In 2017, when most people at the Texas Capitol were focused on which restrooms transgender people should use, Texas Tribune reporter Marissa Evans began writing about an issue that at the time was very much under the radar.
A staggering number of women in Texas were dying while pregnant or soon after giving birth. Black women were especially at risk. Marissa’s stories — including one about how lawmakers were ignoring the crisis — got attention, and the Legislature ultimately took up the matter as part of a special session.
After that session, Marissa wanted to examine the crisis further. She longed to know: Why were so many women dying? Was the state doing enough? She teamed up with data visuals expert Chris Essig, and their reporting ranged from combing through state data to attending the funeral of 35-year-old Michelle Zavala, who died of a blood clot nine days after giving birth to her first child, Clara.
On the eve of the story’s publication, state officials dropped a bombshell: Texas was changing the way it counts maternal deaths. We put the story on hold to confirm our data; meanwhile, a study published in a medical journal found the state’s death numbers were inflated. Still, it was clear the state had a serious maternal mortality problem.
The investigation, which was published on the front pages of six newspapers across the state, found that Texas lawmakers have squandered opportunities to help more women access life-saving services. It explained that fewer black women get crucial prenatal care. It explored solutions. And it underscored the critical nature of the problem by telling the stories of women like Sable Swallow, an uninsured waitress who was released from the hospital after giving birth even though she told nurses she had a terrible headache. (After she left the hospital, the 25-year-old had a stroke and believes she’s lucky to be alive.)
The project included a resource guide, a prenatal questionnaire women can take to doctor appointments and a live Reddit AMA chat featuring Marissa and one of the women in the story, Syreeta Lazarus, who had complications during childbirth. The story was also a focus of an episode of our politics podcast, TribCast.
In April, we held a panel discussion called Saving Texas Mothers: A Conversation on Maternal Mortality. The free public event — which featured medical experts and a state representative and was moderated by Marissa — took place in Tyler, four hours northeast of Austin. A livestream was available to those who could not attend.
Readers responded to our investigation with appreciation and outrage. One wrote: “prediction: this maternal-care resource guide for Texas mothers & families will save lives. Thank you.” Another tweeted that the project was “INCREDIBLE and harrowing and so important!”
A year after the legislative session, lawmakers are still talking about maternal mortality. Many news organizations have now explored the topic. Thanks to Marissa’s efforts to shine light on this underreported topic, it’s no longer under the radar.