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The Florida Department of Health Polk County and the League of Women Voters of Polk County have partnered to start a “Moms with Monitors” program, which is designed to help pregnant and postpartum women who are battling hypertension.

Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Health Department in Polk, said through the program, women who are receiving prenatal care at the agency’s Lakeland facility will receive blood pressure monitors if they have elevated blood pressure.

The Health Department serves pregnant women who are uninsured or underinsured. Dr. Jackson estimates they see about 1,200 prenatal patients over the course of a year.

“Pregnant women and postpartum women whose blood pressure is higher than it should be based on providers’ judgment can be taught about blood pressure issues, can be instructed how to take (their) blood pressure with instructions to record their readings twice a day, (and instructed on ) some warning signs for when to call the office and to bring readings back to future meetings,” Jackson said.

About 150 cuffs have been purchased, she said. So far, nine have been given out.

Paula Mims, chair of the League of Women Voters of Polk County’s Healthcare Action Team, said the program is being funded by members of the league and corporate sponsor T. Mims Corp, a real estate company whose president is Mims’ husband, Tom.

“One of the goals of the Healthcare Action Team of Polk County is to positively impact the pre-term birth rate, maternal mortality and infant mortality rates of Polk County,” Mims said.

In Polk County, Black infants are twice as likely to die than white infants in their first year of life, according to the health department’s data from 2020. It’s one of the issues this program seeks to address.

“High blood pressure that is not adequately controlled during pregnancy can lead to preterm delivery of the baby, low birth weights, placental abruption, so it clearly can impact the health of the mom but it (also) can impact the health of the infant so that’s the link to the infant mortality,” Jackson said. She emphasized that pregnant women should also refrain from drinking, smoking, and using illegal drugs.

Jackson added hypertension during pregnancy can lead to preeclampsia and postpartum reeclampsia after birth, both deadly if not treated.

The Health Department in Polk County also has a Health Equity Task Force. Public Health planner Taylor Freeman, who is a member, said the task force is focused on reducing the Black infant mortality rate.

“When we looked at our infant mortality rate it was also brought to our attention that maternal mortality in the state of Florida as a whole has been spiking and in Polk County, we are one of those counties that does have a pretty significant maternal mortality rate,” said Taylor Freeman, adding that the data on the racial breakdown of the maternal mortality rate is hard to find but she hopes the data collection process improves in upcoming years.

“We do realize there are disparities in Polk for women of color,” Jackson said.

Paula Mims said they got the idea for the program from a similar undertaking in Palm Beach County.

“We hope to duplicate the program in Polk across the state. We believe that counties across the state will see what a significantly impactful, financially efficient program this is and want to see the same results in their area. Checking blood pressure during pregnancy is one small way to have a big impact on pregnancy, birth and postpartum complications. There are certainly a plethora of complications during pregnancy so there is plenty more work to be done,” Mims said.

The Health Department’s task force is working with the organization “Melanin Families Matter” to also find ways to address the issue.

“Some of the feedback we’ve received from Melanin Families Matter is that there’s often some difficulty of our Black women from being heard as far as their complaints of pain, or some of the issues that they have questions about when pregnant and entering into prenatal care and getting coordinated with that care,” Freeman said.

Freeman said she hopes that with the blood pressure cuffs and regular reporting of blood pressure readings to their obstetricians, it will improve the relationship between provider and patients.

“It’s … an important stepping stone in helping build that provider relationship between the prenatal provider and the mom and building that rapport and allowing that conversation to naturally happen,” Freeman explained, adding she encourages pregnant women facing this issue to visit the CDC’s “Hear Her” campaign.

So far, through the program, three Black women have received the cuffs, five Latino women and one Caucasian woman, according to Freeman. Jackson looks forward to analyzing the results of the program a year or two from now once the babies are born and approaching their first birthdays.

The agency currently has enough cuffs to last a year; Jackson hopes they’ll receive more funding for the future.

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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