Find Your Passion: Identifying the Plight of Rural, Expectant Moms

Jon Lauer and Elyse LoveLove, left, and Lauer found that sometimes expectant moms had to rely on ambulances for transportation at time of delivery. Lack of accessibility to health care is a significant challenge for many rural moms and a contributor to the state regularly ranking high in infant mortality rates. (Samantha Hernandez)

By Cara Cramer

Growing up in Alabama, University of Alabama students Jon Lauer and Elyse Love could not imagine living in a town without a hospital – until they began a research project revealing the plight of expectant mothers in rural parts of the state.

Lauer and Love have researched the factors causing infant mortality among Alabama’s 67 counties. Lauer, a junior from Madison majoring in mathematics, and Love, a junior from Bessemer majoring in biology, completed a year-long research project in the Computer-Based Honors Program.

Many expectant mothers in rural counties can’t afford to travel to a hospital in another county and either have to deliver their babies themselves or deliver in other dangerous conditions. As a result, Alabama has consistently been in the top 10 of highest infant mortality rates in the country for many years.

Jay GrimesUA students hope their research on the plight of rural moms could lead to legislative action to ensure moms and infants are as happy as Jay Grimes. (Samantha Hernandez)

Upon learning the extent of the problem of Alabama’s infant mortality rate, Lauer and Love instantly developed an interest in the project.

“This wasn’t necessarily the type of project you read about,” Love says. “As a pre-med student, we always hear about sickness, but we never think about the lack of doctors as an issue. I had never imagined there were areas without hospitals before.”

Lauer and Love worked closely with Dr. John Waits, department of family medicine, and Dr. Jim Leeper, professor in the department of community medicine.

Lauer and Love studied and collected fetal mortality, perinatal mortality, demographic and economic statistics from 1980-2005 to pinpoint the main causes of Alabama’s high infant mortality rate. The rate is defined as the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births. They also studied the presence of obstetric care in the rural areas.

Through their research, they found that rural counties in the state were much worse off than the urban counties, particularly around the Black Belt area. Some areas had high infant mortality rates because there were low populations in the counties, but still a sizeable number of infant deaths.

One of the bigger problems was the absence of prenatal care. Many mothers could not afford to drive to the next county to receive prenatal care. In several instances, mothers would call an ambulance when the baby would arrive so that they were provided with a ride to the nearest hospital.

Lauer was surprised by the results of their research.

“The most shocking thing I learned about infant mortality is that about one-third of counties in Alabama don't have a single practicing OB/GYN. Obviously, this can cause problems for a woman who has to travel a large distance to deliver her baby simply because she lives in a rural county,” he said.

Leeper has been involved with infant mortality projects for years, and Lauer and Love used some of his previous research in their analysis.

Jon Lauer and Elyse LoveLove and Lauer worked closely with faculty from UA’s departments of family medicine and community medicine. (Samantha Hernandez)

“We have a team of faculty, graduate students and medical residents who are continuing to expand upon this project, both quantitatively and qualitatively, which hopefully will culminate in drafting a publication …, ” Leeper says.

Ideally, a statistically-backed link between lack of obstetric care in certain counties and corresponding high infant mortality rates will be established after controlling for demographics and economics. Hopefully, this will encourage legislative efforts to rectify the problem.

Love, who says she’s dreamed of attending medical school for as long as she can remember, plans on entering medical school directly after graduation.

“This project was more of a side note to my main career goal. It reminded me why healthcare is so important and reassured me that I was going along the right path,” Love says.

Lauer enjoyed collecting the numerous data from across the state. “I enjoyed the analysis portion of the project the most. As a math major, I liked crunching numbers to receive the results of our research.”

“This project really opened my eyes to the seriousness of the infant mortality issue in Alabama. I really did not know that infant mortality was such a prevalent problem in the 21st century anywhere in the United States until I began working on this project,” Lauer says.

Lauer plans to attend graduate school and study mathematics. He hopes to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics and become a college professor.

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Cara Cramer is a recent graduate of The University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences. She was a student intern in the UA Office of Media Relations during the spring 2010 semester.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.