Tennessee's High Infant Death Rate

There are places in America where the unthinkable is happening: Thousands of babies are dying.

Of the 23 richest countries, the United States has the highest rate of infant mortality, according to the CIA World Fact Book. And in Shelby County, Tenn., which encompasses Memphis, the state health department says a baby dies every 43 hours -- a rate higher than that of any other major city. The babies most at risk come from impoverished parts of town with largely black populations.

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This old Mississippi River town is now part of the "new South." More than a million people live in Memphis' city and suburbs. As in many other places, the city has been divided between those who can afford an upgraded lifestyle and those who remain in the older version of the city.

In the richer sections they've created their own parks, hospitals and schools -- and, of course, churches.

Twice a year the Rev. Eli Morris, a minister at Hope Presbyterian, leads volunteers from his suburban congregation to a mission downtown, where they tour what can seem like a foreign country.

"When we abandon the city, I really believe that we compromise our community's future," Morris said. "And Memphis continues to be the second-most-segregated city in the country."

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Young Moms and Health Risks

Five years ago, Hope Presbyterian bought a house and established a permanent mission in one of the poorest zip codes in Memphis. They named it "The Oasis of Hope" and hired a full-time manager, Karen Durham.

"We are really in a critical state on infant mortality," Durham said. "We have children having children, and they need to know that somebody is there to walk beside them. And we never know what some of these children have been through themselves. You really just have no idea where they've been."

Terry Drumwright, who has lived in Memphis all her life, heard about the mission through her church and volunteered to be a mentor to a young woman who lives in Memphis with her grandmother, mother and younger brother.

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"I talked to Karen Durham and she said, 'Hey, we've got a young lady that we've been working with for a long time, and she's pregnant, and I would love for you to work with her,'" Drumwright said.

Married with two grown daughters, Drumwright lives with her husband in a Memphis suburb. She began working with Andreah "Precious" Simpson, a high school graduate, who at the age of 17 became pregnant by a 19-year-old who lived in the neighborhood.

At the time, Simpson she said she wasn't ready to be a mom.

"I'm not stable enough to have a child," she said. "I'm still a child."

Simpson considered having an abortion, but Drumwright, her new mentor, helped her decide to have the baby. Because she's young and poor, Simpson is in that group most at risk of giving birth too soon -- and premature birth is the primary medical cause of infant mortality. Drumwright's first mission was to get Precious to a clinic to begin regular prenatal care.

"We send missionaries all over the world to help people in dire situations, and this is something right here in my hometown that's just on the other side of Memphis, and it's something I can do," Drumwright said.

"Whenever I call her, she'll come by to help me. She's great," Simpson said. With Drumwright's support, Simpson began seeing a doctor each month.

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