Doctors say it's hard to pinpoint exactly why the numbers are rising. Experts have cited the growing number of obese mothers as a big factor -- 20 percent of all pregnant women in the U.S. are now obese at the start of their pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These women are more likely to have underlying health conditions, including diabetes or asthma, which can lead to pregnancy-related complications.
The popularity of scheduled C-sections has also been cited by public health experts as a possible cause for rising maternal mortality rates. The latest data from the CDC shows that 31 percent of the mothers now choose to have C-sections, up 50 percent since 1996. Studies have repeatedly shown a higher rate of mortality in mothers who have a C-section delivery, especially those who have multiple C-sections.
"If the risks of a Cesarean birth are small, they're magnified greatly when you add many more Cesarean births each year," said Main, adding that "not that many women actually choose to have an elective C-section at the beginning, but it's easy to fall into a pattern of care that ends up resulting in a C-section."
"These are all wake-up calls across the country that we need to do things differently," said Dr. Erin Dupree, vice president of patient safety at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
While no one can know for certain in Valerie Scythes' case, simple devices called compression boots could have helped. The boots are worn around the calves and keep blood pumping to hopefully prevent clots.
Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York is at the cutting edge of preventing maternal mortality, trying to turn the trend around in the United States. For women who have a C-section at Mt. Sinai, inflatable boots are standard practice, but providing the extra treatment can be expensive. While the compression boots cost only $14, the machine that inflates them costs $4,600.
Dupree admits that the costs and lack of awareness of the technology might be keeping some hospitals from using compression boots, but a good portion of what Mt. Sinai does costs nothing at all.
Doctors and nurses at Mt. Sinai work constantly at improving communication and training to make sure that staff members ask patients the right questions and that patients are empowered to speak up when something doesn't feel right.
For more on maternal mortality and pregnancy complications, visit the CDC's page on the topic by clicking here.