In summary

Expectant parents are losing access to prenatal care or driving long distances with so many California hospitals closing maternity wards to cut costs. A mother whose first child was stillborn shares her story and an important practice that public agencies should raise awareness about.

Guest Commentary written by

Allie Felker

Allie Felker

Allie Felker is the director of policy for PUSH for Empowered Pregnancy. She is a mother of three and an advocate to end preventable stillbirth.

Everyone loves a good birth story. We love hearing about warrior moms who heroically bring their children into the world. We share these stories and we relish them.

Just not stories like mine.

As a healthy 28-year-old, I never dreamed something could go wrong during my first pregnancy. I knew miscarriages were relatively common, but once I crossed that daunting 13-week mark I thought I was in the “safety zone.” I continued my pregnancy with as much bliss as one can experience in the midst of a global pandemic.

At nearly 32 weeks, I was blindsided to learn that my son Henry “Hank” Justice Felker had died in my womb. This was especially heart wrenching since I went to the hospital a day earlier for reduced movement but was eventually sent home.

I was not told about the severity of decreased fetal movement and what that could mean for myself and my baby. Had this information been available to me, I believe Hank would be alive today. 

In my subsequent pregnancies, I drove nearly two hours roundtrip to receive prenatal care. I knew the privilege that came with having the ability to take time out of my week to receive that care. I also knew the importance of monitoring movement and to get an appointment whenever things felt off.

Many parents do not have this privilege or knowledge. To keep moms and babies safe, we need to address access to care and access to this life-saving information.

A study released by the California Hospital Association earlier this year indicates that a fifth of California’s hospitals are in danger of closing. CalMatters found that more than 40 hospitals have closed their maternity wards over the last decade, and 27 of those occurred over the last three years. Those who are most in need of care – those of lower socioeconomic status or who experience negative social determinants of health – are at greatest risk of losing access.

One of the things I discovered after we lost Hank was a proven program that helps bridge the gap between patient and provider when appointments are limited or hospitals close. It’s an early warning system that sends the right people in at the right time.

Count the Kicks” is a widely used stillbirth prevention technique that teaches expectant parents a simple method for getting to know their baby’s normal movement patterns in the third trimester. By timing how long it takes their baby to move 10 times, and rating the strength of their baby’s movements each day around the same time, this practice can give parents some peace of mind.

More importantly, it alerts them when something is off, and empowers expectant parents to seek out a health care professional if their baby’s normal movement patterns ever change.

I had access to some of the greatest care in the country but that didn’t save Hank. Knowing that a change in a baby’s movement is a warning sign and a call for help would have saved my son. I did not have this knowledge during his pregnancy. But I did with his siblings.

During my first pregnancy after the loss, I knew exactly what to do when I experienced a change in movement. I knew how to advocate for myself and my baby, and I had the tools at my disposal to aid in that advocacy. I also had access to care.

Hospital closures will negatively impact birth outcomes for pregnant people in California. At the very least, families do not need to experience the despair mine has to gain access to the type of tools that can help prevent stillbirths. Implementing Count the Kicks as a statewide public health campaign can help mitigate that risk.

It is too late for Hank – but I fight in his memory so that it is not too late for others.

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