Holly Wood, safe-sleep coordinator for the Indiana State Department of Health, talks about making a safe infant-sleeping environment. Staff photo by Tony V. Martin
Holly Wood, safe-sleep coordinator for the Indiana State Department of Health, talks about making a safe infant-sleeping environment. Staff photo by Tony V. Martin
GARY — Working the day shift at a children’s hospital, Dr. Jennifer Walthall received the call she dreads — an infant in cardiac arrest.

Despite staff efforts, the 4-week-old infant died, becoming one of Indiana’s first 2019 infant mortality statistics. Walthall met with the mother and learned she had to go back to work when her child was 3 weeks old. The mother was working two jobs.

From that experience Walthall, secretary for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, learned, “I have a lot of work to do.”

Offering concluding remarks at the First Ladies Luncheon on infant mortality in Indiana on Thursday at ArtHouse in Gary, Walthall told an audience of 150 physicians, health care providers, social service agencies, business leaders, and government officials, “It’s going to take all of us. The village is you, it’s me. I know the collaboration is here, because you’re here.”

Hosted by Indiana first lady Janet Holcomb, the luncheon meeting is the first gathering this year in four counties around the state following last year’s initial First Ladies Luncheon at the Indiana Black Expo in Indianapolis.

Lake County is among 13 counties targeted because of its high infant mortality rates and disparities in health care. Other meetings will follow at targeted counties.

“We’re all here because of a shared goal, to be part of something bigger than ourselves,” Holcomb said, noting her husband, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, has set a goal of reducing Indiana’s infant mortality rate to 6 deaths per 1,000 live births by 2024.

“We want to help babies celebrate their first birthday,” the governor’s wife said. “It will take real action.”

While the current U.S. infant mortality rate is 5.79, the rate for Indiana is 7.3. Among African-American Hoosiers, the rate is 15.3; for Hispanics, 7.6; and for whites, 5.9.

The Lake County infant mortality rate is 10.5, compared to 5.4 in Porter County.

Dr. Deborah McCullough, an OB-GYN from Merrillville, noted that about 70 of the 602 infant deaths statewide in 2017 came from Northwest Indiana.

The black community is particularly affected, McCullough noted. Around the state, she said, African-American infants are more than twice as likely as other races to die before their first birthdays.

While the state’s infant mortality rate from 2013 to 2017 remained fairly steady, Northwest Indiana’s rate grew.

“We have a long way to go,” McCullough said, citing several outcome indicators of infant health. These include low birth weight, prenatal care, smoking, infant nutrition, and breastfeeding. Only one in 3 African-American women are receiving prenatal care, she said.

“African-Americans are really in need of assistance,” McCullough said. “They have assistance. They only need to know about it.”

Practices that could reduce infant mortality include adequate prenatal care and increased breastfeeding duration, she said.

The doctor also promoted the ABCs regarding baby sleep — sleeping alone, sleeping on their back, and sleeping in a crib.

During lunchtime breakout sessions at each table, participants discussed healthy families, breastfeeding, smoking during pregnancy, obstetric navigators, diabetes and hypertension during pregnancy, and safe sleep practices.

Group recommendations included increased education, collaboration among agencies, dealing with cultural and cross-generational issues, use of social media, education on breastfeeding, promoting healthy lifestyles, and having a birth plan.

Nina Johnson, outreach coordinator for Marram Health Center in Gary, said, “We have to figure out a way to work together. It’s not about one person, but all of us.”

Andrea Sherwin, president/CEO of Hammond-based Mental Health America of Northwest Indiana, said her agency’s focus has been on families with children through age 5, to be proactive in addressing issues before they worsen.

On infant mortality, Sherwin said, “I would push for more collaboration and education. The more people know, the less likely we are to see numbers increase. Education is key.”

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