(INTERVIEW) Christy Turlington Burns and Maternal Health

7 years ago

I'm sure many of you know Christy Turlington Burns from the catwalk, magazine spreads and television commercials. But I'm honored to introduce to you the mother-of-two, public health advocate and director of No Woman, No Cry, a documentary about maternal mortality worldwide.

Ms. Burns began this mission after experiencing complications after the birth of her first child. While the doctors were successful in treating her, she realized that other women were not so lucky to have access to adequate healthcare as it relates to pregnancy and childbirth.

It's heartbreaking to think that one woman dies every 90 seconds from maternal complications -- and 90% of those cases are preventable. In the time it takes you to read this post, three women will have already died.

A few days ago, I had a chance to chat with Christy about her humanitarian efforts with Every Mother Counts and her documentary, No Woman, No Cry, which will premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Saturday May 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm ET/PT.

Christy will also be attending BlogHer '11 later this year in San Diego. I can't wait for you to all meet her and hear how she's dedicating her life to saving women worldwide.

BlogHer: You've indicated that your inspiration is related to complications after the birth of your first child. What about your journey as a mother led you to devote your time to the issue of maternal health? What happened?

CTB: After delivering my daughter Grace seven and a half years ago, in 2003, I began to hemorrhage. I had an ideal pregnancy and subsequent first-birth experience, but I was completely unprepared for a complication after delivery. In the weeks that followed, I learned that I was not alone and that many of my friends had in fact experienced some kind of complication. Then, a few weeks later, I learned that the same complication I had endured was the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide. I learned that hundreds of thousands of women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth, but that 90% of these deaths are preventable. I don't know that I made the decision then to focus all of my energy on this subject, but it was certainly the beginning.

BlogHer: You began working with a humanitarian organization called CARE. What was your aha! moment when you just knew you had to not just dedicate your time for the cause, but to specifically direct and create a documentary, No Woman, No Cry?

CTB: I got the opportunity to travel with CARE in 2005 when I was 6 1/2 months pregnant with my son. We decided to travel to Central America, because it was fairly close to home. My mom is from El Salvador and while we were not originally planning to travel there, it ended up being our trip destination. I spent some time visiting with other pregnant women at a water project, and it was there that I realized that had I been somewhere like this when I gave birth to Grace, I would likely have not survived.

I returned to New York and safely delivered my son, Finn. It was then that I decided I wanted to understand more about the conditions in which women were giving birth around the world. Shortly thereafter, I traveled to Peru, where I visited a program that had successfully reduced maternal deaths by half in less than five years. It was in Peru while driving back from this particular village (to the nearest city where we were staying) that I decided to make a documentary film. What better way to bring the stories of hope back to my friends and peers in the U.S. who might not have the opportunity to see the importance of supporting maternal health firsthand? I knew that audiences would feel moved by the subject matter if they could see and experience what I experienced. I came home and shared my idea with my husband, who encouraged me to go for it.

BlogHer: Creating a film is no small feat: Did all of the pieces fall into place magically to make it happen? What was the most difficult hurdle you faced during the making of this film? Had you ever made a film before?

CTB: For some time I thought I might have a documentary film in me, but it wasn't until being confronted with this subject matter that I felt compelled to move forward. After sharing the idea with Eddie (my husband), I went to a friend who had produced other documentaries (Dallas Brennan Rexer) and pitched her my idea. She listened to me, read over my outline and before we finished our coffee, she was in. This is the way most things happened -- the project felt graced from the beginning. That doesn't mean that it wasn't incredibly challenging and that I didn’t question my decisions (and myself) on a number of occasions. It took us the better part of two years to complete, and I came to understand that films are a bit like babies -- you have to get through some stuff before you arrive at your goal ...

BlogHer: It must be so heartbreaking to see firsthand some of the situations. I've read that you've helped many of the women you've met, even saving a woman's pregnancy by donating $30 for her ride to the hospital. How do have the strength to do this? Alternatively, how do you to tear yourself away and not want to stay and help every single woman you encounter?

CTB: We went in knowing that we could see a fair amount of action ... the beauty of not being a traditional verite style documentarian was that I didn't have to subscribe to any of those rules. I knew that I did not want to contribute to the statistics, but in contrast wanted to help prevent them. Together, our crew agreed that we would make every effort to help when it was abundantly clear that help was needed, but we also wanted to observe what would happen without us, which is not easy.

BlogHer: The numbers are staggering: More than 343,000 women die every year of complications from pregnancy or childbirth -- which is one death every 90 seconds -- and 90% of these deaths are preventable. What's one thing that we can all do right now to help influence, educate and build awareness about the issues of access to healthcare and maternal mortality?

CTB: For each woman that dies, there are roughly 10-20 that will suffer lifelong childbirth debilitation. I think what continues to motivate me is the fact that almost all of these deaths are preventable. How many pandemics can we say that about? We know how to prevent these deaths, and we are not waiting for a cure.

If you have a voice, you must use it, as there are millions of girls and women around the world who cannot use their voices. If we come together with a unified voice, we can influence our leadership to follow through on past commitments and to continue making this issue a priority to insure healthy moms and healthy babies so that families around the world can thrive.

BlogHer: To bring the issue a little closer to home, with the recent economic slump, the rise of foreclosures and mass lay-offs, many pregnant women are faced with suddenly losing their health insurance and can't afford the type of reproductive healthcare that they need. Are you seeing a lot of women in this situation? I can imagine many women too proud to ask for help but who can't afford the doctor bills. What is the burning maternal health issue in the U.S.?

CTB: Just like the other countries we profile in the film, access to quality maternity care is key. When a woman can't afford health insurance, she can't afford maternity care in this country, which spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world. When I completed my film, the U.S. was ranked 41st amongst developed countries in maternal health. Today, we are ranked 50th. Not only is this statistic shocking, it is utterly unacceptable.

We met several women while filming in Florida who had either recently moved to the state or whose husbands had been recently laid off, and they were pregnant for the third time. Some women thought since they had done this before, they’d be fine, while others had spent the duration of their pregnancy trying to trudge through the bureaucracy of Medicaid, all while working or going to school and raising a couple of small children. I can't imagine going through a pregnancy under that kind of stress. Consider the potential harm to the mom and baby if a complication arises but there is no medical history to guide caregivers in an emergency.

There are real disparities here in the U.S. that are contributing to the maternal mortality statistics. African-American women are at four times greater risk of dying in childbirth. Latina women are twice as likely. There is a new Maternal Health Accountability Act that was introduced last month by Chairman Conyers of Michigan that would help to establish maternal mortality review committees in every state to examine pregnancy-related deaths and identify ways to reduce deaths. The legislation would also help eliminate disparities in health care, risks and outcomes, and would improve data collection and research in order to reduce the frequency of severe maternal complications.

BlogHer: You've highlighted several mothers and their stories in the documentary. Will you be creating a follow-up show with these same women? I'm sure viewers will be curious to see where these women are now and how their children are doing!

CTB: I returned to Guatemala last fall and to Tanzania in January 2011 to check in on the women in the film. I plan to return to Bangladesh in June. We have kept in close contact with most everyone, and after sharing the experiences that we did, I couldn’t imagine not staying in touch.

BlogHer: What haven't I asked that you want to share?

CTB: I created the Every Mother Counts website and campaign to provide a resource for those who want to do more. Maternal health is an issue that should resonate with everyone and does for so many once they know the facts. I want to continue to share information and progress with those who want to know more and get involved. At www.everymothercounts.org, we offer a number of ways people can participate and contribute in meaningful ways. I believe we all have our own unique set of skills to offer and hope that we can help to inspire others to find their own way to contribute.

Jaden Hair

Publisher of Steamy Kitchen, New Asian Cuisine and Food Blog Forum

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