Memphis, Tenn. — A time of elation can quickly turn to worry for some families whose babies are born prematurely. It’s one of the leading causes of infant mortality, and Memphis and Shelby County out pace the country for babies who don’t make it.
The Horn family was expecting their baby girl in July 2020. But Julia arrived three months early, weighing just over one pound.
“We kind of went from being very excited to being a little concerned to just complete sheer terror that this baby was going to be born at 27 weeks,” said Darrell Horn.
Her wrist was so tiny, it could fit into her father’s wedding band.
“I mean, tiny It was shocking. I mean her head was roughly the size of a tennis ball. And, you know, like I said she went up in one pound three ounces at birth,” Darrell said.
“So, I was just praying that we would, at least I would get to meet her,” said her mom, Betsy Horn.
When she did meet her baby, it was in the neo-natal unit at Baptist Women’s Hospital.
“I remember just not knowing which one she was, and then saw this bed with this little tiny. I mean tiny infant, I think she was 12 inches long, and you know she has tubes everywhere,” Betsy said.
Betsy’s pregnancy was risky, considering she was 40 and had pre-eclampsia, Being so premature, Julia could have suffered brain bleed, lung problems or a hole in her heart.
“It was very scary,” Betsy said. “Through that process you just kind of accept whatever God’s plan is.”
The plan for Julia turned out to be 95 days in the NIC Unit and then home with just a few minor health complications. Her family gives a lot of credit to Dr. Esmond Arrindell and the staff at Baptist Hospital.
“Most mothers they expect to deliver a healthy baby and to take that baby home with them. With a premature baby, they’re going home and leaving their baby in the hospital,” said Arrindell.
He has seen babies born as early as 23 weeks and says pregnancy planning and the mother’s health are factors.
“In detecting conditions such as hypertension once more, which, if detected early, could be treated and could allow the pregnancy to go to term if properly controlled diabetes, congenital defects of these could be detected early on,” Arrindell said.
So, education plays a big role. March of Dimes has been at the forefront of making families aware of critical information with yearly report cards grading states and counties.
“The grades are based on their rates for preterm birth, infant mortality and maternal mortality. Tennessee has received a D rating,” said Amy Colburn with March of Dimes. “Memphis and the county actually receives an F rating, which means those numbers are far higher than the national standard.”
The March of Dimes is looking at how the health equity gap plays into those low ratings and why Black women are 50 percent more likely to have a pre-term birth.
“This is due to all kinds of issues, but in drivers of health you know systemic racism in our system that we’re looking at the addressing as part of the March of Dimes work,” Colburn said.
A key issue is access to health care that breaks along gender lines. It’s something Dr. Lanetta Anderson has seen in her 25 year OB\GYN practice.
“So, when we talk about the efforts we put into place, we can’t just stop with the delivery and the birth experience. We really have to think about long-term strategies of community education individualized thing,” Anderson said. “Making sure baby sleeps alone, that her baby sleeps on its back, that the baby sleeps in a crib and that the family members are aware that cigarette smoke can be very deleterious to a baby.”
Educating the public, advocating for moms, research all takes money. A lot of the funding is being raised in the community with support or organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.
Memphis’ Alpha Delta Lambda chapter of the fraternity is taking up the initiative to raise funds for the March of Dimes through the annual March for Babies race. Nationally, the Alphas have raised around half a million dollars. The largest support in Tennessee came from the Memphis chapter last year, which raised some $23,000.
“Moms and babies need to understand what they can do to prevent finding themselves in a negative situation,” says Evan Arrindell, a fraternity member. “I mean imagine a six-ounce baby or a 12-ounce baby. And one of our aims, our aims scholarship, love for mankind. To me there is nothing more manly than reaching out and doing everything we can to support moms and babies.”
At Baptist, they showcase the possibilities with a portrait wall full of pre-term babies now strong growing children.
“That is the whole idea to show parents there is hope,” Arrindell said.
“We want everybody to have a safe outcome, every baby to have a safe long term maturity and development because they started off strong, so the stronger we make the start, the stronger we make the outcome,” Anderson said.