JERSEY CITY, NJ – Although the healthcare system in the United States is among the most advanced globally, maternal mortality remains a pressing public health crisis.

To bring attention to the crisis in New Jersey, the state Legislature in 2017 established Maternal Health Awareness Day, which is celebrated every year on January 23. New Jersey was the first state in the nation to designate the day.

Leah Dungee-Maignan, the director of Nursing for Maternal Child Services at Jersey City Medical Center, said it is crucial to raise awareness about maternal health because many of the illnesses and negative impacts of pregnancy are rarely discussed.

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While most women give birth problem-free, any woman can develop complications. And as women wait longer to start families, Dungee-Maignan said, the chances of complications increase.

"We are seeing illnesses become more prevalent as we see our population get older," Dungee-Maignan said. "Once you hit 35, you are considered advanced maternal age."

Dungee-Maignan has spent her career in maternal medicine. A registered nurse, she got her start in the neonatal intensive care unit in 2005 and is certified as a neonatal intensive care nurse. She has seen first-hand nearly all the complications that can arise during pregnancy. The key is to recognize any health issue and provide access to patients – especially those who historically have been underserved.

One complication is preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure in pregnancy and if untreated, can damage organs, usually the liver and kidneys.

Preeclampsia typically starts after 20 weeks and can impact women whose blood pressure has never been elevated. Untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious and even fatal conditions for mother and baby.

"Because preeclampsia has a tendency to manifest itself in different ways in different people, it can be overlooked," Dungee-Maignan said. "Sometimes it can come out of nowhere."

Dungee-Maignan said a large percentage of African-American women and older women are diagnosed as preeclamptic or with preeclampsia. Though it is not common, preeclampsia can also occur after the baby is delivered, a condition known as postpartum preeclampsia.

Another complication is gestational diabetes, which can cause high blood sugar levels that can affect pregnancy and the baby's health.

"Both preeclampsia and gestational diabetes can be detrimental to the mother and the baby, Dungee-Maignan said. "That's one of the reasons why prenatal care is so crucial to make sure we are trying to do the best preventative medicine as we can. If your doctor recognizes that the mom-to-be is in a high-risk group, then there are precautions she can take during the pregnancy. Maybe there are extra tests that their doctor can do just to make sure."

To continue investments in Hudson County and access to high-quality maternal care, Jersey City Medical Center operates the Women's Health Center at Grove Street, which provides comprehensive prenatal care.

While most women who ultimately deliver their babies at Jersey City Medical Center receive prenatal care, nearly 25 percent do not, Dungee-Maignan said.

"For moms-to-be, finding a doctor that you are comfortable with is extremely important and making sure that you're being see regularly is a must," she said.

Carla Hollis, the chief operating officer of Jersey City Medical Center, said the hospital supports efforts to raise public awareness about maternal health and promote maternal safety.

"Maternal Health Awareness Day provides us an opportunity to educate, advocate and bring awareness to the importance of solutions that meet the physical, social and emotional needs of all women during pregnancy – and in the days, weeks, and months after giving birth," Hollis said.

RWJBarnabas Health, in conjunction with Rutgers University, The Tara Hansen Foundation, and the Central Jersey Family Health Consortium (CJFHC), will recognize Maternal Health Awareness Day with a week-long series of inter-professional virtual seminars on maternal health and safety.

The virtual seminars will take place from January 23 – January 29, 2021 and are all accessible virtually on a smartphone or computer.

Learn more at rwjbh.org/maternalhealth.