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By Mike Hudson

The statistics are grim. Niagara Falls has a teen pregnancy rate that is second only to Brooklyn's. The second highest in New York state.

We're No. 1 in premature births. We're No. 1 in low birth rate, No. 1 in drug abuse during pregnancy, No. 1 in mothers who smoke, No. 1 in African-American population as a percentage of all births, No. 1 in unmarried moms, No. 1 in moms without a high school diploma, and No. 1 in mom's suffering from obesity.

Those are a lot of medical risk factors, and the result is an infant mortality rate of nearly six out of every 1,000 births.

"The socioeconomic status of this community is 95 percent of the problem," said Dr. Daniel Burns, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. "We've got generations of people in low socioeconomic backgrounds and it's hard to escape. But with the right help, people can get out of that trap, and that's what we're trying to do here."

Toward that end, Burns and his colleagues have set up a special program for prenatal care focusing on young women with special problems that arise in the inner city. The need for such a program was obvious, based on the statistics, he said.

"Initially, this was in response to the lack of obstetric care for the residents here," Burns said. "We looked into the needs of the community, and what we found was that the population of the inner city really is looking for a clinic setting, which makes it easier than having to go through a private office with appointments sometimes three months away."

The grinding generational poverty in Niagara Falls is a seemingly intractable problem that goes all but ignored by many in power here. Drug abuse, poor nutrition, smoking and other problems are endemic. Burns' approach is to try and change things one baby at a time.

"We've got to change the culture in this community," he said. "If you start off behind the eight ball, so to speak, and you're sickly, you're not eating properly, you're a sick baby and you become a sick adult. You've got to start somewhere, so we're starting with newborns. And maybe we change this whole trend."

The new program, launched by Memorial earlier this month, provides a comprehensive approach to prenatal care that focuses specifically on delivering the best health care possible to young moms and their children.

"These patients need more than just obstetric care. Obviously they need the insurance, but they need counseling, they need dietary guidance, and in many cases, they need a specialist in high-risk pregnancy," Burns said. "I've promised the hospital that this is going to make a difference in the number of sickly kids, the level of infant mortality and maternal complications."

Currently, Burns said, most of the patients come in through the emergency room. But in an effort to change that, hospital officials have been reaching out to the community service groups and the churches.

"Having them come into the emergency room, usually late in the pregnancy, is not the best way to see them, obviously," he said. "What we're trying to do is make it as easy as possible for them to get the care that they need."

Often, young women who think they're pregnant are reluctant to seek treatment because of a lack of health insurance. This can result in emergency room visits after the patient experiences some problem well into the pregnancy.

"The patients in the inner city want easy enrollment in Medicaid," Burns said. "They don't want to go down and be demeaned. So what we're trying to do at the clinic is to give them that. We have someone right here who can enroll them."

In addition to the Medicaid specialist, social workers are also on hand to connect young women of limited means with a raft of social services including medical, educational and other support networks. A lactation specialist counsels young moms on breast feeding.

"We encourage breast-feeding moms because we find that when they're willing to breast feed they tend to get into less trouble afterward with drugs and alcohol because they know that the baby's getting that too," Dr. Burns said.

Under an agreement with Sisters Hospital in Buffalo, Dr. Jack Lawler consults on pregnancies deemed high risk at Memorial. These include pregnancies where the mother may suffer from diabetes, hypertension and sickle cell anemia or is addicted to drugs.

Memorial President Joseph Ruffolo, who worked closely with Burns setting up the program, said that providing a one-stop clinic setting will hopefully encourage more young inner-city moms to get the treatment they need.

"We know that the key to delivering healthy babies is healthy mothers," he said. "This new service is designed to provide the health care and support services pregnant women need in a way that is caring, convenient and accessible."

Burns, who for years ran a lucrative practice with offices in East Aurora and Derby, said he welcomed the opportunity to come and work in Niagara Falls. The challenges he faces on a daily basis are what led him to become a physician in the first place, he said.

"I decided about 10 years ago that what made me happy was taking care of patients that need you," Burns said. "What I was doing just wasn't as rewarding for me as taking care of patients who should be taken care of and might not be otherwise. I enjoy it."

The new prenatal care center is open every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Mary C. Dyster Women's Pavilion at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. Patients are encouraged to call 278-4444 to make an appointment.

"We're trying to be flexible with the appointments in this program, meaning that if they say they think they'll be here at two and they get here at three, we're OK with that," Burns said. "The important thing is that they get in here and get the care they need."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 22, 2011