The chance of a lifetime - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Reported by Brooke Sanders

The chance of a lifetime

It's a shocking statistic that Shelby County is trying to fix: its infant mortaliy rate rivals that of some third world countries.

The task of burying many of the babies goes to one man, Reverend Robert Savage, who buries Shelby County's babies twice a week.  It's a job he's held for more than 30 years.

"It's been an experience, he said.  "I've seen things that I never saw before. So many babies. So many young mothers having babies and burying them out here."

In 2006 alone, 209 babies died before their first birthday. At 13.8 percent, Shelby County's infant mortality rate is the highest in the nation.

Many of them buried here by Savage, with just a number to mark their graves.

Experts like Yvonn Madlock at the Shelby County Health Department say the situation is a reflection on the state of our community.

"The Children...that number we measure serves in some ways as the canary in the mines," Madlock said. "If they're not healthy, it tells us it's not a safe place for any of us."

The community is especially unsafe for African Americans. Nineteen of every 1,000 black babies die before their first birthday, compared to six per 1,000 for whites whites.

Black or white, Madlock says, each baby lost comes with an incalculable cost.

"The loss of potential that child represents to our community is unknown," she said. "I can only assume that each of us has gifts to give to Shelby County, and when 100 babies don't live to see their first birthday, that's a 100...that never get to be our teachers, our engineers, our social workers, our doctors, our lawyers."

Most of the babies die in the first few days of life because they were born too soon.  The most common link is the well being of the mother. Much effort is being made to ensure access to health care, but experts say until more is done, people like Savage will continue with their heartbreaking occupation

Savage has buried so many children it has made him numb.

"I know that I can't change it, and I know the Lord has got those children in their hands, so it don't bother me," he said. "They might be in a better place than this city."

Experts say we can no longer afford to be numb, because we can't improve life in our city if so many never get a chance to live their lives in the first place.

Officials say what people do today to ensure healthy babies and mothers won't be seen for several years to come, so we must act now if Shelby County is going to be a healthier place to live.

Click here to e-mail Brooke Sanders

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