Carisma Carter, a 28-year old Navy veteran who had served in the Middle East for eight years, was driving her car to the Atlanta VA Clinic. Her seat had been pushed back far from the steering to accommodate her large belly. Carter was eight months pregant.
“I am expecting two boys, twins.” “This is my first pregnancy,” said the woman.
Carter is well aware of the dangers she may face during and after pregnancy as a Black woman. This is especially true in Georgia, a state where Black women are twice as likely to die than white women.
Carter: “I’m aware of the fact that I have to take care of myself during pregnancy.” “And I try to remain positive.”
Women will make up approximately 17% in 2021 of the U.S. active-duty military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, women veterans are growing at the fastest rate in the United States.
Rand Corp. released a report that outlines the differences between the health needs for men and women, especially in pregnancy and childbirth. Researchers have also found that female veterans are at greater risk of pregnancy complications than their civilian counterparts.
The Atlanta VA Clinic was creative in its outreach to expectant women a few years back. The Atlanta VA Clinic began hosting surprise baby showers to small groups of pregnant women. The goal of the project is to establish relationships with the clinical team, ensure pregnant veterans make all their regular appointments and receive specialist care, and to help pregnant women get the supplies they need nearing delivery. Each pregnant veteran is managed by a trained maternity coordinator.
Read more: Tennessee was ranked among the worst states in maternal health prior to the abortion ban.
The VA changed the showers to low-contact, “drive-through”, events that occur every three months and serve approximately 20 pregnant veterans.
Volunteers set up a table in front the main entrance to the Atlanta VA during a February shower. The building is beige, concrete and plain. The volunteers created an atmosphere of celebration by decorating the table and stacked it high with diaper bags and other supplies for babies.
A volunteer was holding a clipboard and began to hype up the small group. This led to applause, cheers and cheers.
Thank you for your service! “Thank you for your service!” “Congratulations!”
At first, the veteran driver who was pregnant looked confused. She smiled big. She rolled her car’s window down.
Volunteers, VA staff and volunteers crowded around her car. They offered a tiara with green, white and rose flowers.
Would you like to wear this? One asked. “Stunning! What are you having?
The woman replied, “I am having a girl.”
As they talked about her health and due date through the open windows, volunteers began to rush forward with supplies. Some people piled boxes full of diapers in the back seat. The gift card of $100 was the final parting gift.
Kathleen O’Loughlin manages the women veterans’ program at the Atlanta VA. She said that the events provide “last minute baby needs.”
She said, “Because I know there are a lot of them.”
Tennessee women’s groups working to improve Black maternal outcomes
O’Loughlin stated that the health centre can’t invite all women pregnant veterans to group baby showers. They focus on women at higher-risk, such as veterans with multiples or who have disabilities related to military service.
O’Loughlin stated that many women had musculoskeletal injuries as a result. “Civilian women, on the other hand, are not exposed to these disabilities because they don’t share those job responsibilities,” he said. “This is a second set of eyes on them. Are you making sure you’re taking your blood pressure medicines? Are you attending all your appointments with your doctor?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, maternal mortality rates in the United States increased during the pandemic year of 2020 and 2021.
Jamya Pittman is an internist at the Female Veterans Program in Atlanta and she says that physical and mental injuries related to military service increase the risk of poor outcomes for mothers.
Many of our female veterans are diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Pittman explained that women veterans may have PTSD as well as a number of other diagnoses, such hypertension and diabetes. “We know that pregnancy can also be a stressful experience for the body.”
She explained that the Atlanta VA created baby showers in order to improve veterans’ wellbeing. Most of the volunteers for this program are also female veterans.
This visible support, this engagement of the community, and this celebration, she explained, was our way of helping the woman veteran feel less stressed and to be able to see that she is a part of her care, and the arrival of the child.
At the national level, Veterans Affairs focuses its attention on women’s overall health.
(READ ABOUT: Tennessee health equity reports focuses on disparities in outcomes based on race)
Atlanta women veterans serves over 24,000 vets in the area, with 9% being pregnant at any given time.
Congress passed a bipartisan bill two years ago mandating that a study be conducted on the pregnancy outcomes of veterans, taking into account any racial differences.
On the day that the bill was presented, co-sponsor Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois wrote: “There has not been a comprehensive assessment of how the growing maternal mortality crisis in our country impacts our women Veterans. Even though they may have a greater risk due to their military service.”
The Protecting Moms Who Served Act provides $15 million in support of maternity coordination programs at VA hospitals.
The Atlanta VA uses some of this money to ensure that pregnant veterans continue to receive medical care a year after they give birth.
Carter, a Navy veteran who attended the baby shower and spoke to the VA, expressed her appreciation for the VA’s outreach.
She said that she would “check on women, support them, and make sure they have all the things they need to have a baby” because many people do not have this kind of support. They do not have a family. “They’re doing it on their own.”
Carter gave twins birth to her on 25 February. Carter said that both she and her twins are doing fine. The maternity coverage of the female veterans program continues for another 12 months following the twins’ delivery.
This article was produced as part of a collaboration between WABE, NPR, and KFF Health News.
KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. KFF is a great resource for more information.
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