Closing racial gap in infant mortality, preterm births will ‘take a village’

Black infants nearly three times as likely to die as white infants in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. – While medical technology has come a long way to help babies born early survive, a Madison doctor is drawing attention to a disturbing reality.

Compared to other similar countries, the U.S. ranks near the bottom when it comes to babies being born prematurely, receiving a C- grade in a March of Dimes report card. Wisconsin received the same grade, and it’s also the state with the biggest gap between white and Black infants’ mortality rates.

‘Very disturbing’: Doctor draws attention to big racial disparity

The latest data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the rate of mortality in the first year of life is nearly three times as high for Black babies compared to white babies.

“You see this wide gap,” said Dr. Ryan McAdams, division chief of neonatology at UW-Madison.  “Why is it almost threefold what it would be if you were white? I think that’s the part that’s very disturbing.”

McAdams said there’s no clear cut scientific explanation, but there are plenty of potential factors that can affect a mom’s health.

“When you think of some of these disparities: healthcare access, poverty, racism,” he said. “It’s not race, it’s racism. We need to do a better job to help folks in the U.S. who may be disadvantaged for healthcare access, maybe have had to deal with poverty or a lot of life stressors to say, ‘How do we help them better? How do we listen better?'”

He said it could come down to the kind of healthcare mothers receive.

“Unfortunately, skin color may influence that,” McAdams said. “It’s sad to hear, but it’s also likely true.”

Mother, early-born son keep fighting

“Take these women seriously,” Madison-area mother Akiko Moffett said. “Even offer low cost health care to them.”

In January 2019, she went to the emergency room with bleeding and pain.

“Do everything you can to save my son,” she told doctors at 23 weeks pregnant.

“I kind of feel like they didn’t take me seriously,” Moffett said. “For some reason they didn’t believe I was in active labor, although I was hooked up to the contraction monitor and they could see I was having contractions.”

After a very uncomfortable night, she credits a nurse for making sure she got the care she needed the next day, when her son Timarion was born unexpectedly at 23 weeks and five days. He weighed 600 grams.

Twenty minutes after his birth, she was rushed to the NICU.

“They were doing CPR,” Moffett said. “He had flat lined.”

She said he had been in code blue, or cardiac arrest, three times already, before she asked if she could touch her son.

“He grabbed my little finger. You can see the blood coming through his skin, turning pink, all his vitals. His heart started back beating and everything, and I’m like, ‘Hold on little man, just fight. If you fight, I’ll fight with you,’ and he came back to life,” Moffett said. “If I did not live that story I don’t think I would’ve believed it at all.”

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Timarion just turned 22 months old.

“He is great,” Moffett said. “He brings so much joy to us. He was the missing link to our family.”

She knows how much even one nurse can make a difference.

“I’ve seen what those NICU nurses did for me,” Moffett said. “I was like, I need to be that.”

She went back to school, trading her criminal justice degree for a job as a nursing assistant, and is happy to share her story with new moms. She now works on the same floor of the American Family Children’s Hospital where her son is being treated for dehydration. She hopes they’ll be discharged soon.

“I love him to death,” Moffett said. “He is a fighter.”

She’s taking part of the fight into her own hands, encouraging moms to advocate for their health and others to listen.

“Believe in yourself. Believe in your child,” Moffett said. “Be the open arms. Be the village they need. It really does take a village.”