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‘I was not seen, heard or listened to’ at hospital: Ferguson’s Tru Kellman finds her true calling

After enduring two cesarean sections and other challenges as a teen mom herself, Ferguson resident Tru Kellman started Jamaa Birth Village in 2015 to provide a community-driven solution to a national health issue.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

“Considerable” is the word that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to describe the racial disparities that currently surround pregnancy-related mortality rates in the U.S. With African-American women roughly three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers, “startling” might be another fitting descriptor.

And the difference “all boils down to systematic racism in varying degrees,” according to Tru Kellman, executive director of Jamaa Birth Village, a nonprofit pregnancy resource center that has served more than 300 women over the past three years.

“Some of these stereotypes that providers come with in regards to people of color are imposed upon them when they’re in the hospital,” Kellman said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So when you think of a white woman, she may receive better care – more attentive services – and a black woman may actually be more neglected or she may not be given her options or be informed of her choices.”

Once a teen mother herself, Kellman experienced this firsthand years ago – and is now aiming to change things for other mothers.

“I was not seen, heard or listened to [in the hospital], and I was forced to have a C-section actually twice,” she told host Don Marsh as they discussed how her Ferguson-based organization aims to provide community-driven solutions to a nationwide health issue. “And so I took my health care into my own hands – I educated myself, informed myself, and I chose to have a midwife for my third son. And I had my baby with no problems at all.

“And it was all around that time that my calling came out – that I was not the only one who was treated unfairly and unjust in hospital systems and that we needed people who are educated to stand up for us in the community.”

In 2015, Kellman enrolled in midwifery school and also started Jamaa Birth Village. The organization is now raising funds to acquire a 4,000-square-foot building in Ferguson, as a recent Riverfront Times piece highlighted. The funding campaign has continued to attract donations but has about $40,000 yet to go in order to meet its goal.

“It’s tied into launching our equal-access midwifery clinic which is our ultimate goal,” Kellman explained. “Just recently a Ferguson physician who is very well aware of the work that we have done in advocating for women and making sure we lower our infant and maternal mortality rates [made a pivotal donation]. He believes in our forward motion of expanding our care in a comprehensive setting, where women will not only have access to midwives but [also to] mental health-care providers on site as well breastfeeding counselors and life-skill coaches.”

She noted that the stress a woman experiences when she doesn’t have the right resources and support directly impacts her infant as well.

“[This] affects her baby’s ability to get the proper nutrition and oxygen from her body, which means the baby is more likely be born premature or have a low birth weight,” Kellman said. “Whenever a baby is born too soon and too small, they’re more likely to go to the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], and they’re less likely to survive to their first year of life.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.