Guest Post: Connecting families to prevent infant mortality

September is National Infant Mortality Awareness Month. The Coalition focuses on  preventing infant mortality by reflecting on efforts made in the community to provide a healthy start for every baby in Northeast Florida, so they can celebrate their first birthday and many more. We recognize that it takes more than one organization to make a difference. Moms, dads and families should not have to parent without support. It takes a village of people advocating for the babies before and after they are born.

Carolyn Arnister is the program manager for Healthy Start at the Florida Department of Health in Duval County (FDOH Duval). During her career, the FDOH Duval has been a hub for initial contacts being processed through Coordinated Intake & Referral. The Coordinated Intake & Referral Project‘s purpose is to connect families to the best home visiting program that fits their needs. Carolyn volunteered the regional processing center at FDOH Duval for the Coordinated Intake & Referral Project learning collaborative. She has written this post based on what she has learned in her career and practices.

“We yearn for frictionless, technological solutions. But people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.” – Atul Gwande, MD, MPH in article “Slow ideas, The New Yorker Magazine, July 29, 2013

I realize now that I never really understood infant mortality until one of our staff expressed her upset at the loss of her client’s baby, one day several years ago, in my office. It was my wake up call. I could only imagine our client’s grief if my staff person felt this loss as well. 

As the program manager of the Healthy Start program at the Florida Department of Health in Duval County  since 2005, I understand that FDOH Duval care coordinators have embarked on both a joyous yet painful career. They are nurses and social services counselors who coach our pregnant moms and hopefully never have to get the call that ‘my baby died’.

I have been exposed to charts, graphs, and statistics that show the awful number of infants dying in our town. It’s still true that we have less infant deaths in 2017 (106) than in 2005 (150). It’s also still true that a disparity exists regarding the black/white rate (twice as many black babies die) and that despite community programs, campaigns and education, this major public health crisis has not been eradicated.

I sit through reviews of infant deaths, sometimes just trying not to show my true emotion as we search for answers in an effort to stop this tragedy. But, as I have learned a lot about real life maternal and child health during my years as a proud public health professional, I have learned that Atul Gwande, a surgeon and public health leader is right.

At the retirement of one of our counselors, some clients attended as part of their saying ‘good-bye’ but also because our counselor wanted to share this part of her relationship with them.  She was proud of them for their accomplishments. Sometimes this counselor had worked with a client through her entire pregnancy and then with the new baby for about 3 -4 years in total. With the same family. With the same support. With the same messages.

The message, there is a way to prevent an infant death with safe sleep practices. There is a way out of economic distress. There is a way out of substance use. When clients share their personal stories/struggles and we listen, not only do they change, but we change too. As I looked around at the clients attending our counselor’s retirement, I saw babies and toddlers! They made it! This was the joyous part of our work.  As a community, we still need to connect and spread the word that much can be done to prevent infant mortality.