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Maternal deaths on the rise in Missouri

It's a scary statistic-- in Missouri, 45 moms die for every 100,000 live births. That's significantly higher than the country's average, and no one really knows why.
The Briesacher family in their home.

You might think dying during pregnancy or childbirth has gone the way of the horse and buggy, or disappeared with the invention of antibiotics.

But a 5 On Your Side investigation uncovered a shocking health trend. The number of moms dying of pregnancy complications in the state of Missouri spiked dramatically in the past five years.

And no one really knows why.

It’s after school time in the Briesacher household in Edwardsville. Six-year-old Ronan howls with laughter as 3- year-old Evelyn bops her dad David with her hopper. But there's one peal of laughter missing. It's the laugh of David's wife Jen, heard here five years ago celebrating Ronan's first birthday.

David and Jen Briesacher with two of their children, Ronan and Evelyn.

Back in late May of this year, Jen started having contractions with 10 weeks to go in her third pregnancy. A medicine to slow down the contractions didn't work, and a week later she started taking a different medication.

"The medicine gave her a little headache but nothing intense,” said David.

Less than 48 hours later, Jen was in real distress.

"Early Thursday morning, June 8, 2 a.m., she sat up in bed and said that her head felt like it was going to explode and she was in sheer pain,” recalls David.

Within a few minutes, Jen became unresponsive. David called an ambulance and doctors delivered Maren, now 5 months old, immediately.

Maren Briesacher was delivered while her mother was unresponsive.

An abnormal tangle of blood vessels in Jens' brain had burst. She had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. She died on June 9.

"I'm sure the pregnancy had something to do with causing it to rupture,” said David, “I mean the body goes through a lot in pregnancy. I have to imagine there's something about it."

"The trend is real. Scary things are happening for moms in this country,” said Dr. Ebony Boyce Carter, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Washington University School of Medicine.

A 5 On Your Side investigation found 26 women in this country die for every 100,000 live births. That's 700 to 900 moms every year. In Canada, the rate is 7 per 100,000.

"The health of mothers and babies in a community really are kind of the canary in the coal mine to say how we're doing as a society,” said Dr. Carter. “And I think these numbers indicate we're not doing very well."

The rate in Missouri is even more grim: 45.3 moms die in every 100,000 live births. Compare that to Illinois, where the rate is 16.

If you look at the numbers in Missouri in the five-year period from 2011 to 2015, the overall number of women dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth was 334 percent higher in 2015, compared to five years ago.

"I think it’s disturbing,” said Dr. Carter. “And I think there's a number of factors that contribute to it."

First, the U.S. hasn't collected statistics on maternal mortality very well. Also, women who are getting pregnant are older and often sicker, and many don't have access to healthcare.

"One of my big concerns is that women come into pregnancy, especially low-income women, and they have medical conditions like diabetes that haven't been well managed because they don't have of insurance,” said Dr. Carter.

Then there's the racial disparity.

"Who’s the most likely to die in pregnancy? African-American women, and women who live in rural areas,” said Dr. Carter. "I don't think that there's one thing that we can say this is the issue. I think it’s a perfect storm of things coming together."

David is troubled by the trends, which is why he wanted to be part of our story. Talking about Jen helps, and he's finding a lot of comfort in faith and family.

WATCH: David’s interview in its entirety.

"The grandmas have been amazing," said David.

Around the house, photos, a collage Ronan made of his mother, angels at the door. They're reminders that Jen cherished every moment of being a mom.

"We'll always miss Jen and we'll always wonder why she was taken from us, her life was so short,” said David. “But what it is to me, and what I try to show the kids is, it’s not about the time we are going to have without her, but the time we had with her."

The Briesacher family in their home.

November is Children's Grief Awareness Month, and November 16 is Children's Grief Awareness Day.

Annie's Hope is a local organization that supports children under 17 dealing with grief, including the loss of a parent, sibling, or grandparent.

Call 314-965-5015 or visit http://annieshope.org/ for more information.

Five on Your Side investigative researcher Erin Richey was a major contributor to this story. Photojournalist David Mueth shot and edited this story.

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