When Jennifer Walthall was 19, she came face-to-face with a young mom living a nightmare.
As a University of Houston student, Walthall had ambitions to be a doctor and spent time helping in a local hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. One day, an infant arrived from the emergency room. For nine months, the mother had not known — or maybe denied — she was pregnant. The baby was born into a toilet and later died.
Walthall discovered she and the mom were the same age.
“I’m looking at this young woman who has experienced something that was ... changing her life forever,” said Walthall, now 44, a Valparaiso native. “I’d like to think we’d connected in some way.
“What was so fundamentally different about her and me, aged 19, that her life was so hard and my life so easy? I vowed in that moment, I wanted to do something.”
It shifted her focus to public health to prevent similar tragedies, she said.
Walthall, Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration secretary since January 2017, spoke recently during the NWI Health Disparities Luncheon on preventing infant mortality. About 100 people from hospitals, nonprofits and religious groups attended at Avalon Manor in Merrillville.
What if social services had found the woman when she was 3, ensured she had a stable upbringing and gave her a chance to give birth on her own terms, Walthall asked.
“What if we prevented all those things from happening so that the moment we connected over a tragedy never happened?”
In Lake County, the infant mortality rate is 8.7 percent -- tied for second with Marion County, said Tameka Warren, Goodwill Industries’ Nurse-Family Partnership supervisor for Lake County. Only Elkhart County had a higher rate -- 9.9 percent, she said.
African-Americans babies in Lake County were almost twice as likely to die before their first birthday -- a 12.9 percent mortality rate compared to 7.2 percent for white children, she said. African-American mothers also had lower access rate to prenatal care, their children were statistically more at risk for low-birth weight and premature births.
In 2016, nearly 50 babies died in Lake County before age 1, compared to eight in Porter County, according to state data.
“We know there’s a need, the statistics are there,” said Christina Lopez, 33, a neonatal clinical nurse specialist at Methodist Hospitals, where medical personnel work with local nonprofits to help new moms through education — how babies must safely sleep — and resources, such as pack-and-play kits and bimonthly baby showers.
Last year, more than 600 babies died in Indiana before they turned 1, Walthall said. Even if that paled in comparison to adult deaths by heroin overdoses, car accidents or heart attacks, it was still a telling number, she said.
Infant mortality is the “window to the soul of what we care about,” she said, “because if you can protect your most vulnerable, you can protect everyone else, too.”