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First Lady Works to Improve NJ’s Maternal and Infant Health

Tammy Murphy outlines efforts to reduce New Jersey’s maternal mortality rate, blames it on ‘systemic racism’

Lawmakers began a very busy week in Trenton by passing a raft of bills that need only the governor’s signature to become law. One set of bills targets New Jersey’s way-too-high maternal mortality rate. First Lady Tammy Murphy recently told correspondent Lauren Wanko why she’s been championing the issue.

Murphy: When Phil came into office last year, he and I were appalled to see that we, in New Jersey, were 45th out of 50th in terms of maternal mortality. And so we talked and given that we do have four children of our own, it seemed like an obvious thing for me to look at. We started off with one or two departments within the administration working with us, and there now are 12 different departments working on this topic, because it’s everything from access to transportation, access to child care, access to food, obviously access to healthcare. It’s a big, big problem. And it’s basically systemic racism, if you want to look at it like that. If you’re really willing to step up and make that comment, I think that we’ve gotten to where we are because people of color are treated differently than people who are not of color.

Wanko: Tell me a little bit about Nurture New Jersey?

Murphy: Nurture New Jersey is the public awareness campaign. It really has three aspects to it: We are trying to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity; we’re trying to reduce infant mortality and morbidity; and we’re also trying to ensure that everyone, every mother, every child, no matter what their race, no matter what their ethnicity is treated with the exact same medical standards so everyone has the same access to healthcare. One of the big pieces that I’d love to tell you about is the Family Festival Series. What we do is we target hot spots around New Jersey and then we gather state, local, and county resources and we basically set up, for lack of better explanation, it’s kind of a one-stop shop for care and resources.

Wanko: And anybody in the community’s invited?

Murphy: Anybody in the community can come. The next one is going to be in June in Newark.

Wanko: Why are doulas such an important focus for you when it comes to infant and maternal health?

Murphy: Doulas are something that are very unique because they don’t take the place of doctors, they don’t take the place of midwives. They actually are very much complementary, and their primary job is to serve as an advocate for the mom. And so what we have found, studies have shown that if you use doulas, that you can actually reduce maternal mortality rates. And you can do a lot of things like reducing the number of cesarean sections, you can reduce the amount of painkillers involved, you can reduce the time involved with labor, many reasons, but I think it’s because they fit a great niche. Because they are people in these communities, they have the ability to really work with these women, and people seem to love them.

Wanko: You’re also a mom, besides being First Lady, a mom of four children. How does being a mom and the memories of your pregnancy and labor and delivery affect how you feel about the issue?

Murphy: It’s funny you should ask this question because just last week when I was meeting with a group of doulas and two moms — moms-to-be, but one had been a mom and was having her second child and didn’t use a doula for the first one and is using one for this one — I was really impacted because they had birthing plans, and they said we’re going to do the following five or 10 things and I sat there listening. And another woman there, who was a woman of color, said if we didn’t have a doula no one in our community would know about a birthing plan. And I kind of smiled and I then said, ‘Well, guess what? I had four children, I never had a birthing plan. I wish someone told me I could have a birthing plan.’ There’s a lot of benefits, but that would be my direct relationship. I never had a doula myself, though.

Wanko: Looking back, if you did hire a doula, how do you think it would have changed your experience? Would it have changed your experience?

Murphy: I think it would because there are a lot of things that happen in this world where you are not given an instruction manual, or you’re given an instruction manual but it only goes so far. And I think having a doula, they break the information down into very digestible sound bites and they give you options. It’s like having someone there who you can ask all those dumb questions that aren’t actually dumb.

Wanko: What’s your message, not as First Lady necessarily, but first as a mom to all pregnant women in the state, and new moms as well?

Murphy: I think everyone just wants to have happy, healthy, successful, well-adjusted families. Our family motto is you’re only as happy as the least happy person, you’re only as successful as the least successful person. So I think that you just have to remember we are all in this together. I think as a state we all have to come together and not work in silos. And I think for moms, pregnant moms, it’s the most fun time ever. You do have to be careful, and you do have to make sure you have a healthy baby and take care of yourself as well, but I would just say go with it. It’s the most fun. The best memories are having babies and taking care of them.

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