Ten years ago, Jane Murphy became the executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County, though she'd always planned on staying a social worker. That was a job she did for 25 years, first at Tampa General Hospital, then at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital. • "I kind of evolved into this. It wasn't something where I said, 'Oh, I want to be an executive director of a nonprofit,' " Murphy said. • Last year, more than 9,000 pregnant women in the county received services from Healthy Start, which for 20 years has provided resources like health and parenting education and counseling to families. • The organization recently expanded its Healthy Families program countywide to improve the health of low-income mothers and families around Hillsborough. A new Safe Baby Plus program has trained nurses in county hospitals to educate families on the top causes of infant mortality. • "Sometimes women don't go to the doctor except when they're pregnant," Murphy said. "There's a challenge of wellness, a challenge when you're already pregnant and you're trying to make some lifestyle changes." • Murphy talked with Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan about her role in combating the prenatal effects of prescription drug abuse as part of a statewide task force, the progress she has seen over the past 20 years and what can still be done to help families start and stay healthy.
What are the biggest challenges that mothers in the Healthy Start program face?
I think mothers want to be healthy. They want to be healthy for themselves; they want to be healthy for their children. The challenge is to have a healthy life, especially moms who have complex medical issues, trying to get all the different things they need, and the services and support. That's one of the things Healthy Start wants to do, to help moms get all the help that's available to them.
Healthy Start is celebrating its 20th year. What are some of the biggest accomplishments or advances that you've seen?
We're very lucky in our community that we have great access to care. We're also able to have Mom Care, which helps women who are pregnant and who are at 185 percent of poverty. They can get Medicaid just for their pregnancy. That's huge for women who may not be able to afford health care. We give them Medicaid just for the pregnancy and it goes six to eight weeks after the baby is born.
What sort of progress has been made on the statewide task force on prescription drug abuse?
We meet again on Dec. 10 and at that time we're really looking at some policy changes. I would say the last six months it's really been analyzing the problem. I think it's really critical that women are given the information before they get pregnant. There are many times there are good reasons for women, for anybody, to be on prescription drugs. But if you're planning to get pregnant, really talk to your doctor, get whatever help you need.
What sort of progress do you hope to make with the task force? What are the goals?
I think there's going to be some policy changes as far as do we have enough treatment. We need to really identify the women that need treatment and women that may need to reduce the use of drugs in pregnancy, and then we need to be able to provide them the treatment and the support. I think we'll come up with community education so it's not just about the obstetrician needing to know. It needs to be everybody knowing that anything you take when you're pregnant — drugs, alcohol, any of that — can have an adverse effect on the baby.
Healthy Start has provided training for nurses in Hills-borough County hospitals with the Safe Baby program. What is that program and what does the training do?
One of the things we do is look at why babies die in our community. When we look at why babies die we look at the things we can do to prevent those deaths. Most of the time when there's been a child that dies from trauma, it's because a lot of times the baby is crying and the person caring for that baby loses control and injures the baby. We've educated over 600 nurses. And all the hospitals that participate in our Safe Baby program show a video and the mothers sign a letter that says "I promise to protect my baby."
How have your own experiences as a mother influenced the work that you do?
I have three children and they're grown, but when I was having kids I was working as a hospital social worker. I've always been interested in maternal child health, and for 25 years I did bereavement work as a social worker with women whose babies had died. When you sit with somebody who has had a baby die and you see what could have been and what that does to the family, I think that drives me. We need to look at how we can support families in having healthy children because that is how you judge yourself as a community.
What are your goals with Healthy Start going forward?
The biggest goal is to really enrich the lives of families in Hillsborough County. But one of the things you have to do to get there is reduce infant mortality. There's also a big issue of racial disparity in infant mortality. Black babies are three times more likely to die than a white baby. That's not acceptable; no baby should die. We worked closely with the Black Infant Health Practice Initiative in 2008, looking at ways that you could reduce the racial disparity in infant mortality. We really need to continue that work. We have continued a lot of it and we need to really focus on that.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.