Shanita White had only known Tamara Etheridge for about 15 weeks before the two shared one of the most intimate moments a person can experience.

Etheridge was there as White gave birth to her third child, a boy named Kyrie.

Doulas have been around for centuries in various forms, although the term is less than 100 years old. They are women who attend prenatal visits, offer advice and support to expecting mothers, and guide a woman through labor and delivery.

Although not medically trained, they are advocates and coaches for the mother who improve communication between mothers and medical staff, helping to reduce complications before, during and after birth.

In Atlantic City, where black women and infants are more at risk for such complications, including mortality, doulas are being trained and reintroduced into the community to meet women where they are.

This was White’s first time using a doula. She said when she has questions, instead of calling the doctor’s office and waiting for them to call back as anxiety sets in, she can contact her doula.

“You get a lot more information from a doula. It’s more on a personal level,” White said.

Ronsha Dickerson said doulas are not in place of a midwife or doctor, but rather act as a support system for a mother. Dickerson, 41, of Camden, is the doula leader for the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative’s Healthy Women, Healthy Families program. She said three black women, including Etheridge, were trained as part of a $4.7 million grant from the Department of Health, designed to improve the rates of black infant mortality in the cities with the worst outcomes.

“We’re praying this grant and this funding continues on because the impact and the need is so important,” Dickerson said.

Having black women who live in the city as doulas is one of the most important parts of the Healthy Women, Healthy Families initiative, Dickerson said. The other important aspect is for women to know the services are free.

Dickerson said doulas trained for Atlantic City are getting clients through both the Perinatal Cooperative and their own personal connections.

“That’s a part of being a doula, you have to be able to connect to your community,” she said. “Having access to someone who is right in the city, it’s a deeper connection because there is a sort of culture connection.”

Before having her son, Etheridge lost her first baby, a girl, at 25 weeks. She was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a rare disorder characterized by high blood pressure and possibly organ failure, and which can be dangerous for mother and baby.

She believes the outcome of that pregnancy would have been different if she had the support of a doula, which is part of the reason she decided to become one herself.

“I felt like I didn’t have anybody there to help or for me to talk to. I feel like now I could give out this support that I was yearning for,” said Etheridge, who hopes to help at least 10 women this year.

In the weeks they have spent together, White and Etheridge developed a bond, with the ladies checking in with each other often.

“I can call her at any time, and she answers,” White said.

She recounted an incident last month when her baby wasn’t moving and she became concerned, so she reached out to Etheridge for quick support.

Etheridge suggested laying on her right side and drinking water.

“As soon as I did that, he started moving again,” White said. “And then she texted me the next morning to make sure everything was OK. The doctors don’t do that, so I like being able to have a follow-up afterward.”

Dickerson said the doula services offered through the Healthy Women program are “near and dear” to her heart.

“Because I know that in the community I come from, our women suffer the most,” she said. “We really want to knock down this mortality rate.”

In his budget address March 5, Gov. Phil Murphy touched on the program and its importance and proposed an additional $1 million through Medicaid programs for doulas.

“The facts are jarring,” he said, saying New Jersey has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country.

“Even worse, 60 percent of new mothers who die because of complications from childbirth are women of color. A black baby in New Jersey is three times more likely to die in his or her first year of life than a white baby — the widest racial disparity in the nation,” Murphy said. “Medicaid covers 40 percent of all childbirths in New Jersey — and these babies deserve a chance as much as any other.”

Dickerson said the doula model used for the Perinatal Cooperative program is centered on black women training black women.

“The training process is centered around African-American studies and cultural ways to approach pregnant women, lactating women,” she said.

Etheridge said the Healthy Women, Healthy Families program came to Atlantic City at just the right time for both her and the city.

“I felt like it was my time to answer this call finally,” Etheridge said.

“Good thing you didn’t ignore it,” White added.

People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Join the conversation here.{/span}{span class=”print_trim”}(tncms-asset)97756c50-3c46-11e9-9c30-00163ec2aa77[0](/tncms-asset)

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.