JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UF Health in Jacksonville takes care of our area's most vulnerable babies, born well before their due date.
More than half of its patients are African-American.
Shawana Brooks, a local mom, gave birth to her baby, Roosevelt, at UF Health at 26 weeks. Brooks' pregnancy journey was not easy. She had two stillborn babies before Roosevelt.
"Never was I prepared to take care of a child that wasn't going to be fully developed," Brooks said.
She's not alone. Black women from all over began to tell her their stories of close calls, loss and birthing premature babies.
"That strong black woman is always a perception, is always out there and yes, we are strong, but strength still comes with vulnerability," Brooks said.
The pre-term birth rate in Florida among black women is 54% higher than all other women.
Duval County received an F grade from the March of Dimes, a nationwide nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies. The county led the state in the number of pre-term babies, and black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.
Action News Jax anchor Letisha Bereola asked NICU Medical Director Dr. Josef Cortez why the numbers are so high. He said studies show there are racial and social factors at play.
"Their conclusion was, yes there is race and ethnic disparity in safety, quality and outcomes, but those are modifiable -- which means that doctors, researchers, clinicians - can affect outcomes by rigorous quality improvement projects," Cortez said.
Research from Northeast Florida Healthy Coalition shows access to care, poverty and unstable housing all play a role in the health of the baby and mother.
However, there can be an additional factor for black women -- implicit bias in the medical industry.
Dr. Cortez said unintentional racism doesn't exist in his NICU unit because there are systems in place to make sure each baby gets equal care. But he told Bereola -- he's seen it throughout his career.
"Personally, it's pervasive. We talk about all of that, we talk about it. It's always kind of sensitive and difficult to talk, but you hear things," Cortez said.
UF Health said it has multiple quality improvement projects in place to ensure the best outcomes.
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