When a baby dies in Shelby County, Dr. Theresa Chapple and her team of researchers from the county's Fetal Infant Mortality Review team immediately try to find out what happened. Mothers are interviewed. Police reports are examined. Medical information is studied. The results of each investigation are compiled to help determine why Shelby County has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.
The program was spared last week after the Tennessee Senate voted to keep funding for the Office of Children's Care Coordination in the budget. Senate Republicans had suggested in late May that the state office, which funds infant mortality review teams in Shelby, Davidson, and Hamilton counties, be eliminated.
"We have some good recommendations that we're working on and trying to bring to life," said Chapple, director of Shelby County's fetal infant mortality review team. "If funding was cut, then we would be stopped before we could make any impact."
The team began its research last July. Chapple said the team hasn't had enough time to accrue a year's worth of research and thus cannot yet determine any cause for the county's high infant mortality rate.
Before the Senate voted to spare the infant mortality programs, county commissioner Mike Carpenter wanted to use the local team's findings as proof that the agency deserved funding.
"It's so complex that there's nothing you can glean from part of the information. They've got to complete the study, and it won't be finished until the end of the year," Carpenter said.
Though no final results are available, Chapple said she's noticed a large number of cases involving obese mothers and mothers with chronic obesity-related illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes.
"Being obese can change your hormone structure and impact your cycles, so a lot of obese women don't know they're pregnant until four or five months into their pregnancy," Chapple said. "For those four to five months, those women are continuing with their normal behaviors, such as eating bad food, smoking, and not taking prenatal vitamins."
The Senate vote funding the Office of Children's Care Coordination also preserved Centering Pregnancy groups, which offer group prenatal care. Since it was founded, more than 92 percent of babies born to participants in the program were born at full term with normal birth weights.
"Since [the Office of Children's Care Coordination was founded in] 2006, there's been a real interest in infant mortality," Chapple said. "And from 2006 to 2008, there was a 12 percent decrease in infant mortality. That's major for any health outcome."