For Jean Luc Montou and Sarah Bertrand, May 9 was one of the happiest days of their lives, the day when 29-year-old Bertrand gave birth to the couple's first child, a son named Julian Charles.
"Afterward, she just silently dropped tears of joy and happiness," Montou, 24, told TODAY Parents. "She loved Julian so much."
But just 24 hours after giving birth, Bertrand died in her hospital room as Montou held their newborn son.
Montou, who lives in Moss Bluff, Louisiana, says that while the hospital is still investigating the cause of Bertrand's death, doctors suspect she suffered an amniotic embolism — an extremely rare childbirth complication that causes heart and lung collapse and internal bleeding.
"Once the symptoms start showing, it's already begun," said Montou, remembering that Bertrand complained of a headache and appeared to be having a seizure before she died. "I remember thinking it would be OK because we were in a hospital — and the staff tried so hard to help her — but I knew it was serious when they started doing compressions and began using the defibrillator."
The couple did not immediately announce the birth of their son, as they were waiting to be released from the hospital so they could take photos of him in his nursery to post to their social media accounts. However, once Bertrand died, Montou penned a heartbreaking post, alerting friends and family that Julian had arrived, but Bertrand had died just hours later.
"Sarah didn't make it," Montou wrote in the viral post. "My last 24 hours with her was the happiest I'd ever been...I loved this woman like no other and she died in front of me while I held our son. Please take a few moments to remember this woman because she was the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me and Jane" — his 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
Montou’s experience coincides with the publication of an in-depth report on maternal deaths in the U.S. by ProPublica and NPR, following the story of a neonatal nurse, who gave birth at the New Jersey hospital where she worked, and died 20 hours later. Some 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes in the U.S. every year, and roughly 65,000 nearly die, according to the piece. The U.S. has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world, placing 136th (after Hungary and before Iran) among the 184 countries ranked overall in the CIA World Factbook.
Jane was deeply loved by Bertrand, who left her job as a veterinary technician to be at home with the child while her father worked.
"Sarah was there for me when I was having a hard time as a single father. Sarah was there for Jane when she needed a mother figure," remembered Montou. "Sarah did not skip a beat or hesitate to be there for us and love us from the time we met."
Montou says he and Bertrand had planned to marry after she had recovered from Julian's birth. Now, the father of two is staying with family members and trying to determine what his next steps will be. Montou also started a GoFundMe to raise money to help secure his family's future.
"We had both wanted a son so bad," said Montou, adding that Bertrand suffered from severe anxiety throughout her life and often said her growing family was what brought her peace. "She worked hard during delivery and was excited to see Julian finally. Just 20 minutes before she died, Sarah said, 'I have never loved anyone or anything as much as I love him — he's like my favorite thing ever.'"
As Julian grows older, Montou says he will tell his son that becoming a mother gave Bertrand the strength to face her issues with anxiety.
"Julian was her purpose," said Montou. "I'll tell him that he's not just her son, he's her legacy."
"I'll tell him that his mom loved him so much, but that she needed a rest from this life ... that she gave so much of herself to nearly everyone she knew and that it was her turn to relax."
Montou says his Facebook post was only intended to be an update for those close to his family, but it brings him some comfort to know that people around the world have now heard Bertrand's story.
"She deserved no less than for the world to pause for a moment and see how strong, brave and happy she was before her sacrifice," said Montou. "I miss her so much, but sometimes I think it would be selfish to ask God to return her because she finally gets the peace and relaxation that she sought her entire life."
"I just wanted people to know who she was, and I don't want her to disappear after everything she did for me, my daughter and Julian."