CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Pregnancy can be a joyous time, but it can also bring a lot of worries, especially for one group of mothers-to-be.

A local program aims to make a difference in the lives of Black expectant parents.

Kayla Foxx and Rashad Reed adore their baby boy, but early in her pregnancy, there were moments when Kayla worried she’d never get the chance to meet him.

“In my first trimester, I went to the hospital room, and I was just sat in the waiting room,” Foxx recalled. “I was bleeding; I was scared I was having a miscarriage, and it was so scary for me because I wanted my baby.”

She also knew that as a Black woman, she faces a higher risk of death related to pregnancy or childbirth.

“Black women are dying at three to four times higher rates than similarly positioned white and Hispanic women,” explained Dr. Stephanie DeVane-Johnson, a certified nurse midwife.

According to the CDC, maternal deaths rose across the board from 2018-2020, but there is a striking difference when the numbers are broken down by race.

In 2020, the maternal death rate for white mothers in the United States was about 19 deaths per 100,000 live births. The maternal death rate for Hispanic mothers was about 18 deaths per 100,000 births.

The maternal death rate for Black mothers was more than 55 deaths per 100,000 births.

The statistics are alarming, but not surprising to Venus Standard, Devane-Johnson, and Dr. Jacqui McMillian-Bohler.

All are certified nurse midwives and university professors, Standard at UNC, McMillian-Bohler at Duke, and DeVane-Johnson at Vanderbilt.

They say many Black women don’t feel heard by medical providers, and some don’t bring up concerns or symptoms for fear they won’t be taken seriously.

“What we’re hoping to do with our doula training is to help mitigate that, to provide a voice to help clients really be able to speak about their needs and desires,” explained McMillian-Bohler.

The Alliance of Black Doulas for Black Mamas, based at UNC, trains Black women to become Doulas then pairs them with Black expectant moms. The training and service are free.

“A doula offers emotional support, physical support, informational support,” added Standard. “They’re the advocate.”

This program is uniquely geared toward the Black community.

“We touch on and educate about certain aspects that are unique to the Black experience,” noted DeVane-Johnson. “There’s a certain comfortability individuals feel when your provider or your support person looks like you or potentially has the same lived experiences as you.”

The program’s founders say that trust can lead to better health outcomes.

“I’ve had patients tell the doula things that they didn’t tell their doctor. That happens a little more often than you would think,” said Standard. “They can call that doula 24/7. The doula can call me 24/7.”

That can result in quick access to medical help. It can also simply ease the fears that keep parents-to-be up at night.

Foxx and Reed remember a lot of long nights when Foxx reached out to her doula, Shawna Howard.

“I could rely on her to be the person I needed to cry to, to vent to, to be able to give those worries to at 3 a.m.,” Foxx recalled.

“Three in the morning, five in the morning, just different times throughout the day or night where there’s been pains or questions,” Reed added.

Howard answered every call. “I probably talked to Kayla more than I did my family sometimes,” she said, smiling.

Still, she was glad to support the growing family, and described preparing for the pregnancy and birth as, “A team effort.”

Foxx, Reed, and Howard all described the experience as rewarding.

“It changes your pregnancy inside and out for the good,” Foxx said.

“It just makes you feel like you have played a very special role in someone’s life, and helped them hopefully have a more positive outcome because you were there as their doula,” Howard added.

If programs like this become widespread, they hope maternal mortality rates will start to decline.

Asked whether this work could save lives, both Foxx and Howard responded, “Absolutely.”

“Not just in a physical way,” Foxx continued, “But in a mental way as well.”

Right now the program is only available to families who deliver at UNC hospital, but the founders expect to expand the program to more Triangle area hospitals and to other counties in North Carolina. They also hope their program will serve as a model for others across the country.

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a doula or having a doula as part of the program, you can find out more here.