CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The CDC reports Black women and childbearing people are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts, regardless of their education level or income. In Mecklenburg County, Black infants are five times more likely to die in their first year of life than white infants according to the University of Southern California Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and the North Carolina Division of Public Health (NCDPH) is seeking solutions while releasing new plans to eliminate these glaring disparities.
State officials say systemic racism has historically kept minorities from achieving the best possible health, and it was only made worse during the pandemic. This updated four-year plan is primarily focused on addressing those inequities.
A family's loss
The positive pregnancy test was the start of a new adventure for Tomeka Isaac and her husband Brandon in 2018.
“It was a really good happy experience because we had tried for over a year,” Isaac told WCNC Charlotte. She said her pregnancy was easy, but everything changed in the final weeks.
After eight months of dreaming about and planning for her son’s arrival, Jace died in utero. Isaac and her husband Brandon later found out she had a life-threatening condition that had gone undiagnosed.
“I held my son for probably about five minutes and a nurse came in and said we need to take him away,” Isaac said. “That five minutes was literally the only time that I ever actually held or saw him.”
Losing Jace prompted the Issacs to start calling out health disparities, starting a non-profit named after Jace to provide education and raise awareness.
Since then, more efforts at the state and federal levels have been made to close the racial gaps in maternal healthcare. But there's still work to do, according to experts.
Putting in the work
NCDPH data shows Black families are more likely to experience the tragedy of infant loss. In North Carolina, Black infants are 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants.
“We have babies dying in our state every day and to us that is unacceptable. And we have a higher percentage of those babies dying who happen to be babies of color so to us that is also unacceptable,” said Belinda Pettiford, the state section chief for Women, Infant, and Community Wellness.
The NCDPH has brought together more than 100 stakeholders to form the Perinatal Health Equity Collective. They’ve released a detailed plan to address social and economic inequities and improve healthcare access for all.
“There are inequities that have been built into our systems for generations and so people are treated differently at points in time based on the person that they are,” Pettiford said.
Isaac agrees and said her experience could’ve been prevented with proper health care.
“When he measured small, they never took my urine, they never did any blood work,” she said, "and they literally just told me he was fine which was not the case because three days later I’m in the ER and my son is dead.”
Tomeka and Brandon Isaac turned their pain into purpose when they started Jace’s Journey to shed that light. Isaac hopes her story will encourage other families to advocate for themselves.
“I didn’t want his story to die because he was so loved and I’ve always thought he sacrificed his life for mine,” Isaac said.
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