The text message I received this morning should have brought a smile to my face. My younger sister let me know that doctors would be inducing her this evening. With her first child set to join the world, I found myself overcome with fear and anxiety. Five years ago, my second child Sophie was born. Some 12 hours later, she would succumb to an infection, dying right in front of her mother and I. In an instant, we had lost our child.
My sister’s message immediately took me back to that day, thinking about the past while scared about the future (I have previously written about this). My thoughts are not a simple manifestation of association or my yearning to be a protector for my younger sister, but genuine fear because that day is still with me.
Every detail of that day still sits with me: getting dropped off at the hospital; how sick my wife looked when I entered the room; the sights and sounds when Sophie entered the world. More vivid and painful are the memories of where I was sitting when she went into cardiac arrest, the clothes I was wearing, the hospital smell, and the sounds of “code blue.” To this day, I still cannot see a helicopter without thinking about the 60+ mile trip I took in the dark, so close to my dying daughter yet unable to help or hold her. Today I think about my parents sitting in the waiting room anticipating the arrival of my nephew just as I sat in the waiting room – waiting for things to turn around, waiting for my wife to arrive, waiting for the pain to stop; waiting . . . waiting, only to see her die in front of us.
My fear and anxiety are not simply an outcome of our own experience but the bubble that burst when our daughter passed away. For every 1,000 live births, 4.5 babies die in the United States. The U.S. accounts for the second largest amount of neonatal deaths (that includes child deaths within the first 27 days of life) in the industrialized world. Compared to other countries around the world, the United States ranks with Croatia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, and lags behind Cuba, Slovakia, all of Western Europe and Scandinavia. The situation is even worse when as we look at racial inequality, especially as we look at the first year of life. African American children are 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday than White ones.
Infant mortality is even more devastating in the developing world. Each year, three million babies die in the first week of life, with an additional one million dying by their 27th day. Four million babies do not live past their 28th day of life, mostly from preventable diseases and malnutrition. A recent study found that babies under the age of 1 month account for 41% of all child death, with over half of those deaths occurring in five countries: Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Congo, and India, where more than 900,000 babies die each year. In Afghanistan, 1 out in every 19 babies born die shortly after they enter the world. Every minute, 7 newborn babies die, even though a vast majority of them could be saved. Where are the YouTube revolutionaries to eradicate this malady?
Babies are not the only ones in danger; in the United States, 400 women die each year while giving birth.There are no words for pain, despair, and sense of injustice I feel when I think of the millions of women across the world who have passed away as they were set to bring forth life. And I know that I am tremendously blessed knowing that my partner, who spent a week in the hospital following the birth of Sophie, survived. This cannot be said for women throughout the world. Amnesty International reports that one woman dies every 90 seconds during pregnancy or while giving birth. A total of 350,000 women die each year. With 80 percent of those deaths occurring in only 21 nations, 15 of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa, the consequences of poverty, colonization, and a lack of global commitment to this issue are clear.
As my sister heads to hospital, I will not just be thinking about her and the arrival of Oliver, but about the many children who didn’t have the opportunity to experience this world and the mothers who died while giving life. I will be thinking about Ms. Nalubowa, a 40-year old Ugandan mother of seven, who died while giving birth. “After spending $2.40 to buy a razor blade, gloves and other items the hospital lacked” and unable to pay “a bribe of about $24” she was left to bleed to death along in the maternity ward. I will be thinking about her, Sarenna Ali, and countless other women whose deaths could have been prevented. As much as people in the United States are debating Kony 2012 and birth control, I can only hope that similar attention will be directed to the pressing issue of infant mortality and maternal death throughout the world.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).