STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.
State of Opportunity will be shining a spotlight on the issue of infant mortality this winter. Check back for news, resources, and personal stories.

A personal story of love, loss, and renewed hope

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Chantania Smith (right) and a friend wear "Team JJ" outfits at a benefit walk to raise money for SIDS and other infant death research.

No one wants to lose their child at a young age. But in Michigan, it’s a reality too many parents face. 

Michigan's infant mortality rate has persistently been higher than the national rate for two decades. For every 1,000 babies born in Michigan, roughly seven won't make it to their first birthday. Break it down by race, and the numbers are even more disturbing.

State of Opportunity's Jennifer Guerra met one African American woman for whom infant mortality isn't merely a statistic, but a painful memory.

Chantania Smith is a shy, pretty girl. She met her boyfriend, Jerome, when they were both freshmen in high school. Smith says they started dating almost immediately. Three years later, when Smith a senior, she got pregnant. 

When she found out, she enrolled in Medicaid, took her prenatal vitamins, and stayed in school. But six months into her pregnancy, her doctors discovered she had a short cervix, which is a major cause of preterm birth and a leading indicator for infant mortality.

When she went into labor a month and a half later, the umbilical cord prolapsed and came out first, and Smith was rushed to the hospital for an emergency c-section. 

"I've never understood that saying, 'All things heal with time,' because it doesn't. It doesn't feel any better at all, not even a little bit."

On January 14, 2010, she gave birth to a little baby boy named Jerome – JJ for short. 

"I actually just found out recently that when my son was first born they had to resuscitate him because he wasn’t breathing when he was born." JJ stayed in  the hospital for another six weeks, then returned home with his mom.  But there, things took a turn for the worse. “He wasn’t doing good, so I took him back to the hospital,” Smith says. JJ stayed in the hospital for another week before he was released to Smith again.

Two weeks later, JJ passed away. 

JJ is among the 817 babies who passed away in 2010.

Today, there’s a framed poster-sized picture of JJ hanging on the wall at Chantania Smith’s mom’s house, and Smith wears his ashes in a locket around her neck.

“I talk to him a lot, almost on a daily basis. Sometimes a couple times a day depending on what I’m going through that day.”

Smith, who's now 20 years old and a junior at Eastern Michigan University, says she has lots to talk about with JJ. Like how she got a raise at work and went from making $8/hour to $9/hour. But that $1 rase put her just over the threshold for Medicaid, so she was cut off from insurance. Without insurance, she couldn’t afford her birth control, and now she and Jerome are expecting again.

“I’m kind of happy, but I’m scared overall,” says Smith who, due to complications from her first pregnancy, will now go in for weekly check-ups starting at 19 weeks. “My son, when he passed away, he passed away here in the bed with us, so it’s just like, I’m scared to go through all of that all over."

It's been more than two years since JJ passed away, but Smith says the loss hasn’t gotten any easier. 

In Michigan, how likely you are to survive your first year often depends on the color of your skin. Native American, Hispanic, and, to a lesser degree, Arabic babies born in Michigan have a higher rate of infant death. But by far the biggest disparity is between black and white babies.

African American babies like JJ are two and half times more likely to die before they turn one compared to white babies. In some Michigan cities, the disparity is even higher. In Battle Creek, for example, black babies are five times more likely to die than white infants in that city. In Kalamazoo, the gap is even wider

That’s not to say the infant mortality rate in Michigan and the U.S. hasn’t seen dramatic improvement over the past century…it has. The infant mortality rate in the U.S. has steadily dropped over the last couple decades, but compared to other countries, we’re still not doing too well.

Infants born in Cuba and Slovenia have a better chance of survivalthan babies born in the United States.

Over the past few months, Guerra has interviewed mothers, public health workers, and researchers about Michigan's high infant mortality rate. Stay connected to State of Opportunity to hear these stories and  learn more about possible solutions to the state's high infant death rate and disparities.

Guerra's one-hour radio documentary about infant mortality will air Tuesday 10/9 at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Michigan Radio. Join us at 3 p.m. for a Facebook discussion, or follow us on twitter @StateofOp#infantloss.

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