$2M in grants aims to find out why so many Texas moms die after giving birth

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the industrialized world. While the state has a task force working on a solution, one hospital foundation is also targeting the issue.

One-year-old Jack Ferguson began his life in the St. David’s North Austin Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit. Jack was born 11 weeks premature. The daily visits became overwhelming for the preemie’s mother, Sonja. She started experiencing postpartum depression shortly after her baby came home.

“That’s where the anxiety and the fear really set it,” Ferguson said. “I’m in charge of this child now.”

Her story is just one of the thousands across Texas. Many women are affected by life-threatening health issues shortly after giving birth. Texas outpaces all other states and even many countries in maternal death.

“If you feel like you can’t take care of yourself,” Ferguson said, “it is very easy, I feel like, to spiral into a place where you can potentially take your life or do irreparable harm.”

But on Thursday, St. David’s Foundation rolled out a plan to keep mothers alive. The organization is giving a combined $2 million to 10 health organizations. The goal: find a solution fast.

“Substance overdose is the leading cause of maternal mortality,” said Elizabeth Krause, the foundation’s senior program director. “So, some of our grants that we are making look at how we address substance use.”

The state has a task force looking into the issue right now and lawmakers delved into the problem last year. But, Krause believes the issue can’t wait. “We are being informed by what they’re doing, but we also see an opportunity to take some immediate action,” Krause said.

The high risk of death is a universal problem for Texas women; but, some are at more risk than others.

A 2011-2012 study found that African-American women account for nearly 29 percent of all maternal deaths, even though they gave birth to only 11 percent of all babies in the state.

In comparison, white women accounted for 38 percent of deaths and 35 percent of births. Hispanic women, the lowest risk group, accounted for 31 percent of deaths, even though they gave birth to 48 percent of babies.

One of the organizations receiving funds is Hand to Hold. It’s based in Austin and workers and volunteers provide support services to parents with children in NICUs. Hand to Hold will receive $150,000 of the $2 million to more effectively serve black NICU moms who need help with depression, breastfeeding and peer support.

“We have staff who work at the bedside of new moms in the NICU,” said Hand to Hold executive director Kelli Kelley. “It’s very important to have someone you understand and trust and can bond with who can go through that experience with you.”

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