Chicago midwife hopes South Side birth center will help close maternal health gap

Jeannine Valry-Logan had 12 clients scheduled during a recent evening shift at the PCC Birthing Center in Berwyn, a suburb of Chicago.

The first client is a woman who is nearing her due date and her baby girl is kicking a lot. Later, it’s a young couple who say they feel tired and stressed from caring for their newborn daughter. And then a pregnant woman with questions about treating her gestational diabetes.

Valerie-Logan says she always spends as much time with her clients as they need, even when her schedule is busy. She discusses with them strategies for better sleep, nutrition, and other aspects of maternal care up to one year postpartum. She says it’s part of a holistic approach to pregnancy that’s typical of birthing centers, but not so much in hospitals.

“You’re left to your own devices to find a pediatrician or do your follow-up at six weeks, where community birth is like, ‘I’ll see you in 24 hours, and then I’ll see you in three days, two weeks, six weeks.’ she says. “It’s more love and holding hands to make sure everyone is safe and taken care of.”

Valerie-Logan is a registered nurse-midwife, but not a doctor, so she has to refer people to an affiliated hospital nearby if there are complications. But for low-risk pregnancies, birth centers like PCC are designed to give people an option between going to a hospital and giving birth at home. They are usually more accessible than the hospital as well.

Pregnant people in America are more likely to die during or soon after pregnancy than anywhere else in the developed world, and the maternal mortality rate is nearly three times higher for black women than for white women. Some maternal health experts say birthing centers can help close the racial disparity in health care.

One of PCC’s birthing rooms is dimly lit, has a king-size bed, a birthing tub, and a private bathroom. Valrie-Logan gave birth to her first two children – Satya and Ahimsa – at home, but chose to have her third, Nyabingi, at the birthing centre. She says the atmosphere was calm, with her daughter sleeping next to her as Valrie-Logan went into labour.

“My other daughter was here, my husband was here and my sister-in-law was there taking pictures, and it was just like going out on a Friday night,” she says. “And then we went home the next morning.”

Valerie-Logan wants patients to have the kind of experience at the center she’s trying to build in Chicago.

“Oh my God,” she says, smiling. “I get so dreamy thinking about South Side Birth Center.”

Endia Williams is also a dreamer. She is making the hour-long trip to PCC to deliver her first child at the suburban birthing center later this year. But she would prefer to stay on the south side.

“That’s actually why the Southern Birth Center is so important, because a lot of people don’t have a middle option,” Williams says. ‚ÄúPeople will go to [the South Side Birth Center] because they see themselves in who works there. People want to have someone who understands them.

A stand-alone birthing center opened last year on Chicago’s North Side. Williams says it’s a welcome addition to the city, but even more so than some parts of south suburban Berwyn.

“They’re making it their goal to welcome as many people as possible because they want to make that change,” she says. “But it’s on the north side, and it’s pretty hard to do that when it’s on the north side.”

The number of hospitals providing midwifery in the area has fallen in recent years, while the national maternal mortality rate has risen. Valrie-Logan’s will be the first freestanding birthing center on the city’s predominantly black South Side.

Meanwhile, more people are choosing to give birth outside of a hospital, according to The National Partnership for Women & Families, with the sharpest increases in black, Native American and Hispanic communities.

Rachel Hardeman knows at least one reason why. She teaches reproductive health equity at the University of Minnesota and works with the Roots Community Birth Center in Minneapolis. She says workers there saw firsthand how racial trauma affects maternal health after a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in the Twin Cities area in 2016.

“We saw pregnant people coming in stressed and not wanting to know the gender of the baby they were carrying because they were terrified to find out they were going to have a boy, given what was happening in our community,” says Hardeman.

Workers at the birthing center took those concerns seriously, she says, and offered support.

Hardeman, who sits on the board of Planned Parenthood’s regional wing, says the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade will exacerbate the maternal challenges blacks face across the country. Illinois enshrined abortion rights in state law in 2019, and Minnesota is also taking action to protect abortion rights. But Hardeman says abortion bans in nearby states will disproportionately affect people of color.

“We will have more people who are forced to become pregnant and therefore more people who are at risk of experiencing an adverse outcome,” she says. “So we will undoubtedly see our death rate continue to rise.”

Maternal and infant mortality rates are highest up to one year after birth, and 20 states, including Illinois, recently expanded postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to one year. Most of PCC’s clients are on Medicaid, and Valrie-Logan expects many of hers at South Side Birth Center to be, too. Medicaid reimbursements are often not enough to support birth centers and other health clinics in low-income areas, so Valrie-Logan plans to run her center as a nonprofit and seek grants.

In June, the Biden administration unveiled what it called a “plan to address the maternal health crisis.” He called on Congress to make more available to people who want to give birth outside of a hospital. Democrats in the House and Senate have sponsored bills to increase funding for maternal health care. If accepted, they could give birth centers like Valrie-Na Logan a boost.

Valerie-Logan is raising funds with the help of another local nonprofit, Chicago Beyond, and hopes to open her birthing center in late 2023.

“There are certain things that aren’t billable,” says Valerie-Logan. “Like the time and energy and love that goes into caring for people in the community.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this broadcast interview with Ciku Theuri. Bentley adapted it for the web as well.

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