SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The University of Arkansas Medical Sciences is launching new programs that are focused on the Marshallese community and aim to help reduce the population’s high infant mortality rate.

In a recent diversity report by the NWA Council, it showed Springdale is home to more than 6,000 and expects that community to make up 10% of the city’s population by 2026. This large community in our area is not able to access the healthcare they need.

UAMS researcher, Britini Ayers, has made it her mission to break down the barriers that are preventing many Marshallese mothers from getting prenatal care.

The Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese helps their community adjust to life in America, which they said can come with a lot of fear and culture shock. After the 1950s nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Ayers said one big adjustment is trusting western medical practices.

Ayers said the US government came in to assess the radiation fallout and what repercussions were like for these communities but did so in English and without asking for consent. She said distrust stems from historical trauma.

Michelle Pedro with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese said prior to the nuclear weapon testing, pregnant mothers and their babies were generally healthy.

“Most of the babies that have been born since then, are jellyfish babies. So they’ll have a body and it looks like a big blob and you’ll see it breathing up and down on the table,” said Pedro.

Pedro said for some mothers, the doctor’s orders are getting lost in translation or there’s no one available to help break down the language barriers at the prenatal doctor visits. She shared a story of a Marshallese woman who didn’t take her gestational diabetes medication because of this.

“When they asked her ‘why didn’t you take your meds?’ because she didn’t take them at all, she said, ‘I didn’t know what they were for.’ Her baby had passed away because of that,” said Pedro.

Ayers said the language barriers go beyond translating between two different languages.

“There are not necessarily words for different parts of the body that’s specific to reproductive health. So it does make it very difficult,” said Ayers.

Ayers has found more than a quarter of Marshallese mothers are not attending prenatal doctor visits. She said not having the transportation needed to attend the appointments is another reason for this, so she’s decided to start bringing the care to the pregnant Marshallese women instead.

For example, Ayers said UAMS will start bringing prenatal and postpartum care to Marshallese churches in Springdale this month. Services are billed to insurance and will be done in groups since Ayers said that’s typically the most comfortable setting in collectivist cultures such as the Marshallese.

Another step to offering the care needed for healthy pregnancies in the Marshallese community is rolling out a new UAMS care navigation program, where Ayers said bilingual healthcare workers will assist Marshallese women in scheduling and attending doctor appointments.

Ayers said the programs are funded by grants and will continue as long as they are funded. Pedro said she’s looking forward to seeing how these steps will improve infant mortality rates in her community.