Motorists in Baton Rouge may have seen a billboard on I-12 depicting a balding White man holding open his shirt to reveal a long surgical scar down his chest. “THIS IS WHAT HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE LOOKS LIKE,” the sign reads, as it shows a blood pressure measurement of 145/90.
Yes, a scar from open heart surgery is one of the things high blood pressure looks like. But it also looks like a single coffin with the remains of a 33-year-old Baton Rouge Black woman and the baby she couldn’t bring to term. On March 2, 2020, Jessica Collins-Ruffin, newly married and 6 months pregnant, sought care from an emergency room in Baton Rouge, had a seizure, a stroke, a C-section and died six days after her baby, Jayce Lawrence Michael Ruffin, died.
More significantly, Jessica and Jayce Ruffin are what Louisiana’s alarming rates of Black maternal mortality and Black infant mortality look like. For every 1,000 Black babies born in Louisiana, 11 die before their first birthday. On a list that includes all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Louisiana is in the top-third for Black infant mortality and listed as the 17th worst. The numbers remain bad even when we remove race as a consideration. The state’s White infant mortality rate — 5.7 deaths per 1,000 births — is tied with Kentucky for 8th worst. And when you put all Louisianians together, the infant mortality rate is 8 deaths per 1,000 births, behind only Mississippi for worst in the nation.
Maternal mortality is rarer than infant mortality. It’s measured in deaths per 100,000 births, and Louisiana’s official number is 25 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, but it’s difficult to get an accurate rate, and a chart from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that Louisiana’s maternal death rate could be as low as 14 per 100,000 births or as high as 42.
During his “State of the State” address Monday evening, Gov. John Bel Edwards said the that the state has been making improvement in the number of women who have distressing pregnancy complications related to hemorrhaging and hypertension, but there are still too many stories like Jessica Ruffin’s, too many families having their expectations of new life dashed with the death of mother, baby or both.
“We went to all her prenatal care, we talked to all her doctors, but my concern was her doctors were not listening,” Argarette Weatherspoon-Collins said Wednesday when she testified to the Louisiana Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. Despite her daughter’s obesity, high blood pressure, asthma and a previous difficult pregnancy, as she carried Jayce “she was never listed as a high-risk pregnancy,” Weatherspoon-Collins said.
Her blood pressure that March 2 was 280/190.
Beyoncé had preeclampsia — a pregnancy complication characterized by spiking blood pressure — swelled to 218 pounds and was forced to have an emergency C-section to deliver twins in 2017. Serena Williams had an emergency C-section that same year and had to force her medical team to take seriously her belief that a blood clotting issue she’d suffered previously had returned. When the staff grudgingly ran a CT scan they discovered multiple blood clots in her lungs that could have killed her.
The problem of Black women having difficult pregnancies and struggling to be heard isn’t unique to Louisiana. And it happens to poor Black women, rich Black women, those who are well educated and those who aren’t. In 2018, The Data Center reported that in New Orleans, “even African American mothers with a master’s degree or higher had a greater likelihood (11.9 percent) of having a low birth weight baby than white mothers with a high school degree or less (8.7 percent).”
But as noted in the statistics above, Louisiana’sl not a good place for White mothers, either. Sarah Stickney Murphy, a White woman who’s currently expecting, told the committee Wednesday that while her pregnancy is “very exciting” it’s also “terrifying because Louisiana is a very dangerous place to be giving birth.”
In Monday night’s speech, Edwards referred to a report from the Louisiana Department of Health that shows a 22% decrease in the number of Louisianians having “severe maternal morbidity” events related to hypertension. The state had a separate goal to close the racial gap, but that gap actually widened because the state’s efforts led to greater improvement among White women than Black ones.
“We need to fix it,” Weatherspoon-Collins said Wednesday. “Because I don’t want to know that some other family went through what I went through.”