A tragic episode in James Comey’s book shows the ingrained sexism of maternity care

Comey and Patrice Failor,  lost a child after her instincts were dismissed.
Comey and Patrice Failor, lost a child after her instincts were dismissed.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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There aren’t many women in James Comey’s book—and there are only two he explicitly describes as leadership models. One is Helen Fahey, his onetime boss as a federal prosecutor. The other is Patrice Failor, his wife.

“The person who taught me the most about leadership is my wife, Patrice,” he writes. Throughout his memoir, he often talks about his wife’s influence on his career’s decisions, always portraying her as a voice of kindness and reason. But the episode he uses to illustrate her sense of leadership is a tragic one: The way she handled the death of their newborn son, in 1995.

Collin Edward Comey was the fourth of the couple’s children (They now has five). Comey writes:

He was born healthy, seven pounds, six ounces, and like all Comey babies, he was long. Patrice nursed him at the hospital and our three kids visited and held him. It was a wonderful day, one experienced by many parents with a newborn.

However, as the day continued, “Patrice sensed a change in him,” Comey remembers:

He became strikingly irritable, so she kept asking the hospital staff if something was wrong. They assured her he was fine and all was normal. One nurse patronized this mother of four, telling her, “You’ve just never had a colicky baby.”

Unfortunately, the mother was right—Collin was not fine. He had a serious bacterial infection that babies can contract at birth and while it may be innocuous for adult carriers is can be life-threatening for infant. By the time the infection was diagnosed the day after, the baby had sepsis (a deadly blood infection). After surviving for nine days in intensive care, he died.

Failor channeled her grief into an effort to get all mothers to be tested for Group B strep, the bacteria that killed her son. Mother-to-child transmission is the most common vector, and one fourth of mothers carry the bacteria. Her efforts on testing were successful. In America, “all mothers are tested now,” writes Comey, “and their babies live.” (A campaign to get mothers tested for Group B strep, drawing on the success of testing in the US, is now underway in the UK.)

What happened to Comey’s family didn’t need to—their baby’s infection likely wasn’t yet a death sentence when Failor first noticed something was wrong. The reaction she encounter ended up being lethal to her baby—and unfortunately it’s not an unusual experience for new mothers. Women’s concerns and health complaints are routinely dismissed, and arguably all the more when it comes to new mothers—after all, medicine even came up with a diagnosis that supports their being unreliable: “mommy brain.”

Reports have found that new mothers in the US often feel like their pregnancy and birthing experience deprived them of agency, and that they didn’t have a say in the care they received. At times, as in the case of Serena Williams, who risked an embolism, this threatens the health of the mother. In other cases, it’s the newborn who suffers.

This is an issue beyond the US, where maternal mortality is horrifyingly high. In the UK, for instance, a study has found that the number of stillbirths would be halved if medical practitioners trusted mothers’ instincts more, and took their concerns seriously.