When we think of women dying after childbirth, we usually think of women in underdeveloped countries with limited access to modern medicine. But unfortunately, despite all the medical advances that America has to offer, we are facing a crisis in terms of maternal mortality. The U.S. currently has the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries, and the CDC reports that this number has actually been rising over the past two decades, believe it or not.
Tragically, Ryan Hansen knows this reality all too well. In March of 2011, he and his high school sweetheart Tara were excitedly expecting their first child. As Ryan later shared in a YouTube video he made about the experience, Tara had a textbook healthy pregnancy, followed by a normal, healthy birth. But just a few hours after Tara and Ryan’s son Brandon was born, Tara began feeling unwell.
Ryan explains that Tara was having some episodes of fainting and sensed that something was very wrong; but because she was considered healthy, her complaints were basically discredited by her medical team.
“Before we left the hospital, we had asked the doctor one last time, ‘Would you check? Make sure Tara’s okay?'” recalls Ryan. “She truly, truly felt something was wrong.”
The couple soon went home with their newborn son Brandon, but Tara continued to feel unwell. She was continually told that it was normal to feel a bit “off” when you’ve just had a baby. But within 36 hours after the birth, Tara knew things just weren’t right. Ryan says she was eventually admitted back into the hospital, where she remained for two days until she tragically passed away of an undetected infection that had already spread throughout her body.
“To watch the person that you love so much have to go through that — and watch her just slowly become incapacitated — is … it’s devastating,” Ryan recounts.
Soon after Tara’s death, Ryan began to research maternal mortality, and was shocked to learn how frequently it happens in this country. He vowed to do something about it, in Tara’s honor. In 2012, he launched the Tara Hansen Foundation.
“The thought that Tara could pass away with something associated with giving birth … it never crossed my mind,” Ryan shares in the video. “I learned about maternal mortality only because it happened to me.”
In partnership with Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where his mother works as is director of communications and public affairs, Ryan has since developed the “Stop. Look. Listen!” campaign, which aims to increase awareness of maternal mortality, empower women to report any troubling pregnancy, and postpartum symptoms, and increase responsiveness among maternal healthcare providers.
The “Stop. Look. Listen!” campaign prompted Ryan’s home state of New Jersey to establish January 23 as Maternal Health Awareness Day each year — the first state in the nation to have such a day.
Ryan tells Babble that Tara, who was always passionate about helping others and making the world a better place, would have wanted the tragedy of her death to have meaning, and to be a vehicle to save other women’s lives.
“Tara was a teacher, she taught special education in the town we grew up in,” Ryan shares. “She always wanted to help those who needed it the most.”
The foundation he created and the work he does on behalf of new mothers also gives Ryan himself a special way to continue to connect with Tara, and to keep her memory alive.
“Right now I feel like our new moms need it the most and that is a perfect representation of who Tara was, and keeps her spirit alive,” he tells Babble. “It also gives me the ability to feel like I can still help her even though she isn’t here anymore.”
Tara and Ryan’s story is both heartbreaking and incredibly moving all at once. After grieving deeply for several years, Ryan has since remarried, and has begun to grow his new family. His new wife Mary tragically lost her first husband to a sudden heart attack several years ago, so she understands the trauma of tragic losses like Ryan’s. Recently, the couple welcomed a son, Dylan — a little brother for Brandon.
“I wouldn’t want Brandon to grow up without a sibling,” Ryan explains in the YouTube video. “It’s kind of my chance to have the life I have always wanted.”
But Tara’s memory is always right there in the foreground of his life — and Ryan has not tired of doing the work he knows that she would want him to be doing for mothers everywhere.
“For me, the future is a place where patients and physicians work in tandem to ensure moms have the best possible outcome,” Ryan tells Babble. “Where women’s voices are empowered and no message goes unheard. No woman should lose their life bringing new life into this world.”