ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A group of Capital Region women hopes to eliminate racial maternal health disparities one baby at a time. For the co-chairs of the organization BirthNet, the mission is not only wholly unpaid, but it’s also personal.

It’s been 28 years since Nakia Tillman had her first son, but she still remembers being turned away from the hospital while in labor like it was yesterday.

The nurse gave Tillman a strip pH test to determine if her water broke. The nurse said the results were negative and insisted Tillman and her mother leave the hospital. However, Tillman’s mom recognized the test results revealed otherwise.

“My mother said, ‘you’re going in an ambulance because this time they aren’t going to send you home,'” Tillman said.

On the ride to the hospital, EMS workers confirmed she was in labor, and Tillman’s blood work revealed she had an infection.

“I was sick, and my baby was sick,” Tillman, Co-Chair of BirthNet, said. “This is not an isolated incident. Even in 2022, Black women are still dying. Black women are still being dismissed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started national surveillance of pregnancy-related deaths in 1987. The center categorizes “pregnancy-related deaths” as the death of a woman while pregnant or within one year of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy. 

According to the CDC surveillance, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.

In 2018, the New York State Department of Health reported that Black, non-Hispanic women were five times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white, non-Hispanic women.

“Black women are dying in New York State that is rivaling third world countries, which is never, ever okay,” Esther Patterson, Co-Chair of BirthNet, said. “It transcends education level. It transcends socio-economic levels.”

Patterson added that the perfect example of this maternal racial disparity is tennis star Serena William and her life-threatening birth experience in 2018.

“If she can’t get adequate, caring, respectful medical care from her doctors, how does the poor woman who is a high school graduate?” Patterson said.

Data collected by the CDC revealed that most pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable. Patterson said she has since racism in maternal healthcare as a labor coach and doula in the Capital Region for the past 25 years.

“How women of color are treated, the assumptions that are being made about them, and the care they receive is different across racial lines,” Patterson said.

Patterson said her first birthing experience was “so frightening and so negative” that she waited 19 years to have her second child.

As a doula, Patterson works primarily with young women who need an advocate to combat racial disparities and bias in maternal healthcare.

Several studies published by the National Library of Medicine show doulas improve birth outcomes, but they are often seen as a luxury. The organization BirthNet hopes to change that. The team has put on community doula training sessions and aims to make doulas more accessible and less expensive in the Capital Region.

“When you have a doula there, the quality of care is different, [nurses and doctors] are more attentive, they are answering questions,” Tillman said. “When big brother is watching people move differently.”

BirthNet has conducted several forums with area hospitals to nail down action plans on combatting racial maternal health disparities on a local level. They have also partnered with SUNY Albany on education seminars to improve outcomes.

Patterson said she is hopeful BirthNet’s efforts are making a difference, little by little. 

“I feel a shift. Is it a seismic shift? No. But I feel like there is a real possibility of progress,” Patterson said. “We sacrifice and juggle our lives to move the needle so women and children are not dying in what should be the most powerful, joy-inducing event of their lives.”