LIMA — Though she has her job, her faith and two healthy children, Kesha Drake still often thinks of her first son.
Caleb, who died when he was 9 days old, is frequently in the back of her mind.
“Even though you move on with your life, you think about how it would be like with that child because every child is different,” said Drake, 38, of Lima native.
She bought him a teddy bear at Build-A-Bear before he was born, Caleb Bear, and she could see his personality even while she was pregnant with him.
“He would ball up if I was eating something he didn’t want,” Drake said. “Even inside they feel that stress of a mom.”
After he was born, Caleb was taken right to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He had inhaled his first bowel movement, and, though sometimes doctors can flush a baby’s blood and get the bacteria out, Caleb never stabilized enough.
There was nothing Drake could have done.
She remembers the first few days of his life and what he was like.
“I saw his personality. He was stubborn,” she said. “His blood pressure would drop if the nurses were talking too loud. … He opened his eyes when I called his name.”
WORST IN THE COUNTRY
Unfortunately, Drake’s experience is more common than many may think, especially among African-Americans in Ohio.
Ohio is the worst in the country, ranking 50, when it comes to African-American infant mortality — defined as any baby’s death within the first year of its life. It’s ranked 48 for overall infant mortality.
The African-American infant morality rate, measured by the number of live births per 1,000 where the baby dies before his or her first birthday, was 13.93 in 2012, the most recent data available.
For white babies, it was 6.37 and overall it was 7.57, according to the Ohio Collaborative to Prevent Infant Mortality.
The state’s racial disparity when it comes to infant mortality is more than twice the white rate, said Paula Hillard, a supervisor at the Allen County health department.
“Everybody’s getting better, and we’re staying the same,” said Janis Sunderhaus, CEO of Health Partners of Western Ohio.
HOW CAN THIS BE?
Though the numbers may seem alarming, some health professionals say it’s hard to say why the disparity exists.
Hillard says it’s mostly due to African-American babies being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon — all of which are also causes of overall infant mortality.
Mary DiOrio, medical director at the Ohio Department of Health, isn’t so sure.
“We don’t know,” she said. “A lot of different factors play a role.”
Among those are access to housing, employment, education and stress, low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and more.
The largest cause is pre-maturity, which can be due to smoking during pregnancy, congenital issues and more, DiOrio said.
Sunderhaus attributes the problem to planning.
Fifty percent of Ohio babies are unplanned, she said, and of those 50 percent, 50 percent of the mothers were using a form of contraception, but not a very reliable one. The other half weren’t using contraception.
“Babies do better and mothers do better when they are emotionally, physically and socially prepared to have a baby,” Sunderhaus said. “It shouldn’t be just this haphazard thing that just happens.”
HELP IS AVAILABLE
A myriad of circumstance may lead to infant mortality, and several local agencies are working to prevent it.
Health Partners of Western Ohio, UnitedHealthcare and Help Me Grow hosted a Community Baby Shower Aug. 22 to educate all mothers about infant mortality and healthy habits when it comes to taking care of themselves and their babies.
It’s following up on that event starting tonight, with a program called Baby Steps.
It’s a support group to help families thrive and will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays at the Bradfield Community Center.
Attendees will get a meal, free child care, tips and items for their babies.
The program is an expansion of a 27-year program run out of New Life Christian Church by Lula Fields called the Baby Project, said Gina Goodin, community outreach coordinator at Health Partners.
“We can’t build this in a day,” she said. “Moms, you have to start where you are, and we’ll take baby steps.”
The goal is to offer local mothers and fathers “complete wraparound support,” Goodin said.
As Baby Steps is evolving, another program is continuing to help African-American mothers, as it has for 12 years.
Caring For Two, funding by a state grant and run by the Allen County health department, helps link expectant and new mothers with the resources they need to have a healthy baby.
A community health worker stay with expectant mothers through their child’s second birthday, offering support and coming to their homes to help prevent infant mortality, said Hillard, supervisor of the program, which primarily serves mothers in the 45801 and 45804 zip codes in Lima.
Though the state statistics are still high, the program has seen success in the past 12 years, she said.
Of 457 births, six babies have died — five due to medical conditions and one due to SIDS, Hillard said.
Latasha Thomas, 33, has been in Caring for Two since she was pregnant with her daughter, now 4, and the health department has worked with her through the birth of her son, now 3, and through the first two years of his life. Her baby, now 10 months old, has also been helped by the program.
“It still helps me a lot,” Thomas said. “I love them dearly. … (They help me make) sure my ends meet with WIC … bring me diapers. … It’s a great experience.”
Thomas has in-home visits every week and her representative has even visited her at the hospital when one of her children was ill.
She met her a community health worker with Caring for Two walking into St. Rita’s Medical Center a few years ago, when she first moved to Lima from Nebraska.
“I don’t have family here,” Thomas said. “So that’s like a great support. … As much help as I’ve gotten, I don’t think I would have made it as far without their help.”
While support and resources are important for prevention, so is planning, which is why Baby Steps isn’t the only new initiative Health Partners has added, Sunderhaus said.
It recently began talking to every woman of childbearing age who comes through one of its clinics’ doors.
“We ask … ‘Are you planning to have a baby within the next 12 months?” Sunderhaus said.
If the answer is yes, the clinics help the potential mother get folic acid (necessary to prevent some birth defects), stop smoking if she does, learn about breast feeding and get a safe place to live if she needs one.
If the answer is no — children are not in their plan in the next year — they talk to them about contraception.
There are many other programs in the area to help expectant mothers, new mothers and stop infant mortality.
“Babies aren’t supposed to die, they’re supposed to live and thrive and grow,” Goodin said.
Reach Danae King at 567-242-0511 or on Twitter @DanaeKing.