Women making a difference(Photo: Nathaniel Welch)

It was every mother-to-be’s worst nightmare. Kenyatta Collins-Bolden, a 32-year-old day care provider, was seven months pregnant with her second child when a routine visit to the ob-gyn showed that her blood pressure was elevated. Other tests revealed high liver enzymes and low platelets, a combination that put her at risk for a deadly stroke. “We have to take the baby out right away,” her doctor told her. Little Kennedy arrived at two pounds, 14 ounces, and after a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, she developed an intestinal infection, common among preemies. Doctors were grim: “There’s nothing more we can do for her,” the neonatologist told Collins-Bolden and her husband. So rather than let their daughter feel any more pain, the couple asked nurses to unhook Kennedy’s tubes, then held her without any machines attached to her tiny limbs for the very first time. She never opened her eyes.

Every year in this country, 28,000 infants die before they reach their first birthday. In a country that obsesses over who Blue Ivy’s godmother will be, and where mommy blogs consume countless kilobytes in debating the merits of $700 strollers, that’s six out of every 1,000 babies dead before age one, a rate that puts us behind much less wealthy countries such as Cuba and Slovenia. Experts look to infant mortality as a barometer of a country’s overall health, and what ours says is that America is sick.

And the city of Memphis may be sickest of all. It has the highest infant-mortality rate nationwide. It also leads the nation in poverty and obesity, and ranks high for overall unhealthiness—all of which can contribute to baby death. Minorities are at the greatest risk: African American women are two to three times more likely to lose a newborn than their white counterparts.

But in the past few years, a handful of grassroots programs in Memphis have managed something amazing: They’ve slashed infant deaths by 12 percent, making this Southern city of 647,000 a model for the rest of the country. Now doctors, nurses, social workers, educators, mentors, and mothers have joined the fight, targeting one woman, one infant, at a time. “High infant mortality in Memphis didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t go away overnight,” says Linda Moses, M.D., an ob-gyn who runs a local clinic for poor pregnant women there. “But we’re making a difference. We’re keeping babies alive.” Let’s meet the baby savers.