"When she was born she weighed 1lb. 2oz.," says mother of a premature baby Amy Samples. "11 1/2" long."
Samples' daughter Brylee is an example of what public health officials call a home-grown epidemic.
"You just worry about everything. What's going to happen to her. Is she gonna be okay," says the baby's father Josh McCormick. "She made it through this day. Is she gonna make it through the next."
They're babies born to unhealthy Tennessee mothers. They arrive months early with underdeveloped organs and many do not survive.
"I laid in the hospital 3 nights thinking I was fixin' to plan for her funeral," says Samples.
Little Brylee is beating the odds, but a surprisingly large number of Nashville families aren't so lucky.
"In Davidson County about 3 classrooms of kindergarteners that never make it to their first birthday," says Metro Health Department's Dr. Kimberlee Wyche-Etheridge. "Three classrooms of families that have to plan a funeral instead of a birthday party."
Dr. Wych-Etheridge is an Infant Mortality Specialist. She and her team review each of the nearly 70 infant deaths in Nashville every year. Wyche-Etheridge says half those cases come from the same zip code: 37208.
"In North Nashville alone to have an infant mortality rate that is worse than several 3rd world countries is just a stain on the community," says Dr. Wyche-Etheridge. "It's a stain on the city."
Corinthian Baptist Church on 33rd Avenue is among the North Nashville congregations that have felt the pain of loss.
"Oh it was hard," says Mishaunda Tatum, who lost her son. "It was hard."
Tatum has 2 healthy children, but her first born, Nicholas, was dead on arrival in July of 2002. She visits his grave regularly.
"I was excited to be pregnant with him and to lose him, I was struck, I was torn," says Tatum. "To this day I still grieve."
Health officials say Tatum's neighborhood represents the perfect storm of race, place and poverty. They point to few grocery stores to buy healthy foods, an interstate that divides the community separating women from relatives and resources and increasing their exposure to toxic exhaust fumes. Tatum, who was overweight and struggling with both diabetes and high blood pressure during her pregnancy, concedes she wasn't helping herself.
"I wasn't eating right, I wasn't," says Tatum. "I was halfway taking my medicine and halfway not, so that's how it was."
"We're just putting our money in the wrong place," says Neonatal Expert and Chief of Nurseries at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital Dr. William Walsh.
Walsh says at the core of Tennessee's low birth weight baby epidemic is mothers with underlying health conditions.
"If you could keep blood pressure down you could prevent a lot of these pregnancies," says Dr. Walsh. "That is so much more cost effective than taking care of a premature baby because some mother has high blood pressure."
It's a cost that can top $2 million in the first year followed by a lifetime of complications. Lee Ann Sanders knows all about them. She lost one premature grandson. A 2nd, 4 year old Xavier, was born 2 months early and has chronic asthma. Sanders says North Nashville is a stressful place to raise a family.
"The parents' health, the baby's health and the feeding and all that you know," says Sanders.
Experts say the challenge is to get women to take better care of themselves before they get pregnant. It's a challenge observers agree that will take a community to overcome.
"I'm not going to say what we have to do, I'm going to say that we have to do and God is watching," says North Nashville Pastor Reverend Enoch Fuzz.
Reverend Fuzz says his church has a health promotion team that encourages young women to be more aware of their health. The state and Metro health departments and area hopsitals are also reaching out. The numbers are slowly improving but right now, babies born in Cuba, Bulgaria and Chile still have a much better chance of seeing their first birthday than they do in Nashville.
Monday, October 31 2011, 06:38 PM CDT
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