Black Maternal Health

Part: 7

Tonya Lewis Lee Aims to Save Nation's Babies

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tonya Lewis Lee, an award-winning TV producer, released the documentary "Crisis in the Crib" last year after learning of the high infant mortality rates among African Americans. She's also launched a grassroots program to encourage healthy living.

(WOMENSENEWS)--A robust African American man sits motionless, staring into an incubator. His round face wears worry like a coat. Inside the incubator his daughter, Tatiana Candace Miles, who was born 1 pound, 13 ounces, rests with tiny bandages covering her even tinier eyes.

"I sit here every day," he says, "and if I could just take her pain away, I would. This is my second preemie child. My first child was 29 weeks, she weighed 2 pounds. I thank the Lord she overcame it. It just hurts when you see someone you love and you really can't do anything for them. Until you have a child like this of your own, you can never really understand."

This is a scene from "Crisis in the Crib--Saving Our Nation's Babies," a groundbreaking documentary released in September 2009 with screenings in select cities. The film offers faces and voices to the maternal and infant mortality problem in the United States in general and in the African American community in particular, where the rate is twice as high as in the general population.

A low birth weight infant is one of the three leading causes for infant mortality. The other two are congenital malformations and sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS. In addition, some of the risk factors that contribute to infant mortality are disproportionately found in the pregnant women in the black community: late prenatal care, poor nutrition and obesity.

The documentary is a project of the Office of Minority Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The force behind it: Tonya Lewis Lee, an attorney and award-winning television producer and the wife of filmmaker Spike Lee.

Marker of a Nation's Health

"The infant mortality rate is a marker for the health of a nation," said Lee, a spokesperson for the Office of Minority Health's "A Healthy Baby Begins With You" campaign since 2007. "And I know that all of those babies lost to infant mortality are important resources lost to us all."

Much of the documentary was shot in Memphis, Tenn., where on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King--whose birthday is observed today as a federal holiday--was assassinated by a sniper's bullet.

In 2008, Memphis acquired another notorious distinction--the highest infant mortality rate of any major city in the United States. It had 692 dead babies over a four-year span and a rate of more than 15 deaths for every 1,000 births, more than twice the U.S. average.

Broken down by zip code, centering on the poorest places in this very poor city, there are areas where babies die at a higher rate than they do in some developing countries, such as Vietnam or Iran.

A devoted mother herself, Lee has two children, Satchel, 14, and Jackson, 11. A lawyer by trade, Lee worked primarily on corporate and First Amendment issues and then transitioned from practicing law to writing and TV production.

In 2004, she served as executive producer of the documentary, "I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education," for which she received both the Beacon and Parents' Choice awards.

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Maternity Center Showcases Full-Service Approach


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Midwives Fight AMA to Provide Black Maternal Care


Series Overview

Black Maternal Health: A Legacy and a Future

Part: 19

U.S. Health Bills Show C-Sections Cut Two Ways

Part: 18

California Moms Live in Breastfeeding Haven

Part: 17

Lactation Breaks, Always Commendable, Are Now Law

Part: 16

Dr. Lu Puts 'M' Back in Maternal, Child Care

Part: 15

NYC Targets Black Women for Breastfeeding

Part: 14

Michelle Obama Urged to Speak Out for Breastfeeding

Part: 13

Tonya Lewis Lee Aims to Save Nation's Babies

Part: 12

Black Infant Mortality Points to Moms' Crying Need

Part: 11

Lawmakers Join Push to Close Maternal Health Gaps

Part: 10

Industry, Feds Entice Black Mothers to Bottle Feed

Part: 9

Midwives Fight AMA to Provide Black Maternal Care

Part: 7

Breastfeeding Not for You? Sisters, Listen Up

Part: 6

U.S. Black Maternal Hazards Tied to Social Stress

Part: 5

Black Fathers Opening Up About All That Love

Part: 4

Pregnant? Your Job Is To Take Care of Yourself

Part: 3

Maternity Center Showcases Full-Service Approach

Part: 2

Kindness RX Offered to Pregnant Black Women

Part: 1

Studies Plumb Depths of Black Maternal Health Woes