Nearly 30 years ago, I was born three months premature. Weighing one pound and nine ounces, I was smaller than the palm of my father's hand. I stayed in the hospital for many months to receive the care I needed to survive. I needed oxygen, lived in an incubator and doctors told my parents that I would have many developmental challenges to overcome.
Once I left the hospital, the work wasn’t finished; it was actually just beginning. My parents worked tirelessly to see to it that I had access to doctors, nutritional supplements and the greatest teachers on earth. Growing up I had my fair share of challenges, but I was able to thrive through them because of outstanding community support and the knowledge my family had of navigating community resources.
Since 1985, times have drastically changed in the medical profession. We’ve seen tremendous advances in medical technology and neonatal care. We know a lot more about why babies are born premature and how to treat them. We have experts that have outlined the best practices in prenatal care and advice for new moms.
Despite the gains that we’ve made on reducing the infant mortality rate in Milwaukee, we still have work to do. Too many babies are dying. According to 2014 data released by the Milwaukee Health Department last week, preterm birth kills more babies than all other causes of infant death combined, and kills a disproportionate number of African-American babies. In Milwaukee last year, 84 babies died before their first birthday last year.
In thinking about programing and ways to solve this crisis, we need to celebrate the gains we’ve made in taking on infant mortality and prematurity. But, we need to take a serious look into the reasons why we continuously have deep racial disparities for birth outcomes when it comes to black children.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The health of a community can be seen in how it treats its young. Over the years in Milwaukee, we went from noticing pink flags to blazing red flags on this issue. We have seen success in reducing the infant mortality rate in Milwaukee.
But, Milwaukee has a serious poverty problem. We should collectively address the needs, access and assets levels of black families, discover ways to increase strengths, and if we must create another program, then we need to take head on the racial impact of those programs.
Let’s look seriously at policies that make sense. Family medical leave is one of them. Parental involvement from conception is key, including providing care to expecting mothers with incarcerated partners. Expanding Nurse-Family Partnerships would help a vast number of parents in their homes, who maybe don’t have a regular doctor or transportation. Investing in the interest and education of minority nurses, providing scholarships and incentives for those who pursue specialized training would be a step in the right direction as well.
I’m proud of the work so many partners have done in Milwaukee. With a first glance at the numbers, yes, we have reduced the number of infants dying in our city. But let’s dig a little deeper for future generations. Their lives depend on it.
Johnson graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in 2010 with a degree in English. While at Stritch, she was the managing copy editor of the student-run newspaper. Johnson resides in Milwaukee and has a 4-year-old son named Elijah. In their spare time, they enjoy playing at the parks and reading at the public library. They also adopted their cat Lilly on Dec. 24, 2013.