‘We all deserve to keep our children’: Grieving grandmother calls attention to state’s high infant, maternal mortality rates

Jessica Collins died in March 2020 after extremely high blood pressure led to a seizure and stroke during her sixth month of pregnancy. Her baby, Jayce Lawrence Michael Ruffin, died five days after he was delivered by C-Section. (Photo courtesy of Argarette Weatherspoon-Collins)

Argarette Weatherspoon-Collins told the Louisiana Senate Committee on Health and Welfare Wednesday that her daughter Jessica, then 6 months pregnant, went to see a doctor in March 2020  and when she was turned away because her insurance had just lapsed, went to an emergency room where her blood pressure registered 280/190. Twenty minutes later, Weatherspoon-Collins said, Jessica suffered a seizure and a stroke.

Both Jessica Collins Ruffin, 33, and Jayce Lawrence Michael Ruffin, 5 days old, died — adding to Louisiana’s sky-high rate of maternal mortality and infant mortality rates, particularly among Black mothers and their babies.

“We went to all her prenatal care, we talked to all her doctors, but my concern was her doctors were not listening,” Weatherspoon-Collins told the committee. She said her daughter was obese, had high-blood pressure and, as an astmathic, “had a rescue inhaler with her at all times,” and yet, “she was never listed as a high-risk pregnancy.”

Weatherspoon-Collins was testifying Wednesday on behalf of Senate Bill 72 by Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans), which would create an office of women’s health within the Louisiana Department of Health advanced. The committee advanced the bill without objection.

Carter, a candidate in the April 24 runoff to represent the 2nd Congressional District in Congress, said, “We know that women’s health takes on very unique characteristics and very unique needs.,” He said the state health department has been working to improve women-related health care, “but we also recognize that we still have a tremendous amount of growth and a tremendous amount of opportunity to address many issues.”

The office of women’s health, he said, “will be laser focused on collecting necessary data, and providing the resources on education women need.

Louisiana has the second highest infant mortality rate in the U.S., as 7.6 infants die per 1000 live births.Black women in Louisiana are four times as likely as White women to die from complications related to pregnancy and the Black infant mortality rate, 10.5 infants per one thousand live births, is more than twice the rate for White Louisianans.

Alma Stewart, president and founder of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, testified that such an office would be “dedicated solely to improving the dismal health outcomes for women in this state.”

“We are ranked 49th nationally in overall health outcomes for women and children,” Stewart said, but added that Louisiana can improve its standing by improving birth outcomes, chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity and social conditions like hunger and food insecurity among women.

Kim Hood, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, testified that a women’s health office could cost the state about $1.8 million over five years. 

Sen. Patrick McMath (R-Covington)  said he supports the bill but doesn’t think it should be so expensive since there are already programs such as the Women, Infants and Children Program, the pregnancy assistant mortality review, pregnancy risk assessment program, reproductive health programs, the Louisiana breast and cervical health program, etc. in place.

“When (the hospital staff) finally decided to take my grandson out, he was bruised from the top of his body to the bottom of his body,” Weatherspoon-Collins said. She said Jessica died days later, reportedly after due to an allergic reaction to medication.

“I want you all to understand we are people, we need to utilize the health system,” she said. “We all deserve to keep our children. We all deserve to keep our grandchildren.”

Sarah Stickney Murphy, who said she is currently pregnant, told the committee her pregnancy has been “very exciting but terrifying because Louisiana is a very dangerous place to be giving birth.” 

When pregnant with her first child, Murphy said “it took two days of me fighting with doctors to take my complaint seriously, and get the necessary tests done to show that I had preeclampsia with severe features. And I then had an emergency C-section at 36 weeks.” (Pre-eclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure.)

“I recognize that I had a lot of privilege in going into those situations,” Murphy said. “I have good insurance. I’m white, I’m college educated, I can speak medically. I am a native English speaker… I honestly believe that if layered on top of the misogyny that women routinely face within the medical community, I was also subject to racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, or transphobia: I do not believe that I would be alive today.”

Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) offered to name the bill after Weatherspoon-Collins’s daughter “so we always remember and her life was not in vain.” The grandmother had promised not to get emotional, but she broke down in tears in response to Barrow’s suggestion.

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.