As we enter the winter holiday season, many people start thinking about what they’re grateful for.  As a mother of three children who has personally experienced a life-threatening condition after childbirth, I’m thankful to be alive today. As the Director of the Detroit Health Department and an emergency physician, I’m honored to serve Detroit families by working to improve their health every day.

I vividly remember becoming pregnant with my first child over eleven years ago. Like many first-time mothers, I felt excited and anxious while planning my ideal “birth experience”.  I wanted my family present, access to top-notch medical care, and above all, a successful delivery. I looked forward to the day I would soon become a mother and welcome home our first child.

As with life, no one could have predicted what would happen the day of my delivery!  Although I had a smooth pregnancy, I was unable to deliver my son naturally. I was in labor for over a day before ultimately giving birth via cesarean section. Days after the delivery, I began to have severe headaches. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t walk. I remember crawling on the floor, holding wet towels to my head for relief. Although I was suffering from “the worst headache of my life”, something physicians know is a reason to seek emergency medical care, I was still unsure of what to do. I called a close friend, who recommended I go to the hospital. I was admitted to the same hospital where I also worked as an emergency medicine resident, and my colleagues diagnosed me with a severe brain bleed.  There I was, a new mother with a three-week-old baby and facing the possible reality that I would not make it home alive.

I do not remember much of what happened after that.  After having two sides of my skull cut open to drain the blood, I woke up, surrounded by incredible family members and friends.  I had access to some of the best brain surgeons and medical providers in the country. I did not have to worry about how my newborn would be cared for- I had a community that supported me and helped my husband and I with meals, childcare and general support while we got through this challenging time.

As an emergency medicine physician, I’ve seen too many mothers and infants whose stories don’t end like mine.  I’ve treated mothers who come into the emergency department with little prenatal care, only to witness their babies die while still in the womb. In some cases, these mothers have conditions that are diagnosed too late, resulting in death or other severe health complications. I’ve pronounced too many babies dead in my emergency department–babies who died due to medical problems related to their prematurity, or fell asleep in an unsafe sleep environment, only never to wake up again.

There are over 10,000 babies born in Detroit every year, and over 130 will die before the age of one.  Detroit’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the country, and is worse than many countries that do not have as robust of a healthcare system as ours.  While we often do not think about it, mothers are suffering from too many pregnancy related complications that are preventable or could be successfully managed if diagnosed sooner.

Without strong social support and early medical treatment, I would likely not be alive.  I would not have the opportunity and privilege to be the doctor, mother, wife and public servant that I am today. All mothers and families deserve this support and access to medical treatment, so that they can have the best possible outcomes for their pregnancies, deliveries, and children. As Detroit’s public health leader, I am committed to working with partners across the City to make sure this happens.

Detroit, we must and can do more!  In August 2017 the Detroit Health Department launched SisterFriends, a unique collaboration between public health and the health care system. SisterFriends connects pregnant mothers with a community volunteer, or “SisterFriend”, who supports mothers through their pregnancy.  SisterFriends are mentors who encourage pregnant moms to receive appropriate prenatal care and attend educational classes through Make Your Date™, a program of Wayne State University. These wonderful volunteers also support families after the baby is born, making sure newborns obtain well-child care, have appropriate access to food and nutrition programs, health insurance, and live and sleep in safe environments at home. Importantly, this SisterFriend becomes a part of that new mother’s social support system, the very system that I credit for allowing me to be alive today.

I was very fortunate during my birthing journey, despite the odds. I now have three beautiful and healthy children. I dream of a day when all mothers and babies in Detroit have a circle of care to help them overcome any challenge they may face during this beautiful, yet sometimes daunting experience of pregnancy, birth and taking care of a new baby. The Detroit Health Department is working with partners across the city and state to address maternal and infant health. Everyone must step up and participate in this movement. Our moms and babies deserve it.

Dr. Khaldun is a board-certified practicing emergency physician and the Director and Health Officer for the City of Detroit Health Department.  To find out how you can become a SisterFriend or for more resources, call 313-961-BABY or visit www.sisterfriendsdetroit.com

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