HOUSTON – It might be hard to believe, but Texas is one of the most dangerous places to have a baby, and it’s even more dire for women and babies of color.
We are learning more about infant fatality rates and maternal mortality from a new March of Dimes report. Texas did not do well and Harris County is even worse. One Houston family knows this heartbreak too well.
Young mother dies after childbirth
Tomara Johnson Thompson was so excited to have a new baby. Everything was great until it was time to have the baby.
“She tried to have her baby naturally, wound up having a C-section, and from there everything spiraled out of control,” said Janice Hale-Harris, a close family friend of Thompson. “She never even got to hold her baby because she was so sick.”
Tomara died about seven weeks after childbirth and the news hit everyone hard.
“It was tragic and devastating for our entire community.”
Tomara’s family hopes to raise awareness -- that mothers can die after having a baby.
“She was in her 30s, 35 years old,” Hale-Harris said. “She had everything you should have before you have a baby and yet she still died. This can happen to anyone.”
Women of color are more at risk. But why?
“Black women are three to four times more likely to die but also women of color - especially black women are at much higher risk of having babies born too sick and too soon,” said Stacey D Stewart, President and CEO March of Dimes.
The March of Dimes is the leading organization fighting for the health of moms and babies. This year’s March of Dimes report shows in Texas the preterm birthrate in 2019 was 11%, earning the state a “D." Harris County was even higher at 12%.
In part, the report says: “While there is no single cause to this complex maternal and infant health crisis in the U.S., contributing factors include maternal health and management of preexisting conditions. They also include social determinants of health such as being uninsured, living in poverty, and having inadequate prenatal care – which the Report Card shows most often affects women of color. In Texas, 20.6% of women receive inadequate prenatal care; 24.7% of women ages 15-44 are uninsured, and 15.8% of women ages 15-44 are in poverty. Systemic challenges with health care and deeply entrenched structural racism are fueling this health equity gap.”
“Unfortunately we are seeing way too many babies not being able to make it to full term,” Stewart said. “That often means their moms are not often healthy as well. The mom’s health may have declined during pregnancy. We are looking at both the health of the mom and the babies are interconnected.”
Janice said systemic racism is part of the problem. Systemic racism is a form of racism that is embedded as a normal practice within society or, in this case, within the medical community.
“Things like, ‘Oh Black women can withstand more pain than others,’ which is just not true,” Hale-Harris said. “Or, not listening to women when they talk about their bodies.”
What next? Making changes to keep mothers and babies safe
To help solve the problem the March of Dimes and groups like Improving Maternal Health (or IMH) are teaching women what they need to do to improve their chances of staying healthy before, during, and after pregnancy. Dr. Erica Giwa with IMH says that includes extending Medicaid longer after the baby is born.
“If we are able to extend that coverage that would allow us to provide quality care to patients who otherwise not be able to receive it,” said Dr. Erica Giwa. “I do have hope for this situation. One big thing we are doing is to bring awareness to the issues.”
“To make sure every Texas mom and every Texas baby has the best healthcare and best access to healthcare as possible,” Stewart said.
Advocates also want to provide training for medical students.
“Training for implement bias and the acknowledge of racism," explains Dr. Giwa. “How do you make this something we are always talking about and getting our teams comfortable with being uncomfortable? I think this is a very uncomfortable topic but we have to get to that place.”
“We have to take better care of the mom and the baby from both sides of the aisle. The doctors have to care more and the mom has to get more education and those people around the mom need to be more educated as well,” said family friend Janice Hale-Harris.
And she says don’t just attribute high blood pressure or blood sugar to being a minority. That does not make those dangerous readings normal or healthy. Tomara’s advocate says get a second opinion if someone isn’t listening to you. Luckily, her baby is a healthy 2 1/2 years old.