March of Dimes’ annual walk along the Charles River spotlights maternal and infant health in Massachusetts

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Leading up to her pregnancy, Jessica Paulino felt confident she’d receive support from nurses and doctors in Boston, her home city which she describes as “the center of healthcare and the mecca of education.”

But as she went into preterm labor at 24 weeks, her thoughts shifted, much to her surprise.

Her son, Eddie Manuel Arnold, was born “extremely premature,” weighing a pound and 10 ounces. He lived 22 days, dying on March 9, 2020 from hydrocephalus, an inflammation on his brain.

“I was feeling something was wrong with my pregnancy, and I wasn’t being heard,” Paulino told the Herald. “Now, being in this space, I feel it’s more common than we know. I don’t think most people know until they’ve had a personal experience.”

As the sun shone over the Charles River Esplanade Saturday, Paulino shared her story of losing her son to hundreds of families that gathered for March of Dimes’ annual March for Babies: A Mother Movement.

A year into her grief journey, around the time of his first heavenly birthday, Paulino decided to create The EMA Project to support bereaved parents who have lost a pregnancy or child or experienced an embryonic loss.

The EMA Project, in honor of Eddie Manuel Arnold, provides care packages and local programming for grieving families.

“I felt this need to create a support system as much for myself as for others because as I was going through the grief journey I didn’t see a lot of Latinas talking about this,” Paulino said. “It was important to make sure Blacks and Latinos understood it’s safe to talk about grief, that it is OK to deal with their pain in a public way.”

Paulino is not alone in what she says is a “crisis” amongst Black and Brown birthing mothers.

Statistics support her stance. Black and Brown women are two to three times more likely to give birth preterm in Massachusetts, according to the latest March of Dimes’ report card which measures the state of maternal and infant health.

Massachusetts earned a B- in the latest report card, a decrease from last year’s B grade. Its preterm birth rate stood at 9%, and its infant mortality rate rose from 3.7 to 3.8 per 1,000 live births, March of Dimes’ figures show.

“We can do better, and we should do better, because our people are dying and our babies are dying,” Paulino said.

Compared to other states, Massachusetts is faring well but it can do better, said Chloe Schwartz, director of infant and maternal health for the state’s chapter of March of Dimes. Vermont is the only state that earned an A.

Scwhartz said it’s hard to pin down the top drivers behind Massachusetts’ worsening preterm birth and infant mortality rates.

“That is the never-ending question,” she said. “There is tons of research going on across the country around that. It could be anything from a lack of prenatal care to preexisting medical conditions.”

At the State House, there are a handful of bills that would address maternal mental health, pre- and postpartum; provide funding for grant opportunities to diversify the prenatal workforce; and increase Medicaid coverage for various services, including doulas, nonclinical care providers that offer social and emotional support.

March of Dimes’ mission has shifted from primarily focusing on reducing prematurity and birth defects to healthy moms and healthy babies, with a heavy emphasis on reducing health inequities, said Craig Best, chairman of the March of Dimes’ Boston board.

“It’s a generational issue that’s going to take time and focus,” he said. “It’s a multipronged approach. There’s a medical side and there’s a legislative side and education.”

Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald

Hundreds participated in Saturday’s March For Babies along the Charles River. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald)

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