Meet LunaYou Mama, Syvella

G. Wayne Miller, The Providence Journal

This pioneering program aims to improve maternal health outcomes for women of color

LunaYou connected Harris to wellbeing coach Courtney Lester, a mother, social worker and one of the founding forces behind the program. And Lester, Harris said, brought relief. “She really helped me throughout,” Harris said, providing support, guidance and an attentive ear, “someone to talk to, helping me keep my blood pressure regulated. I was given a Fitbit to help me track my steps and stay active. My depression and anxiety started to calm down.”

Multiple resources available to RI’s pregnant women: From postpartum depression to ‘pregnancy empowerment’

Free to enrollees, LunaYou is a partnership of Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island and the Business Innovation Factory. Available to women during pregnancy and for three months after giving birth, the program provides wellbeing coaches, a blood-pressure cuff, an activity tracker and what Neighborhood describes as “a trusted circle of support, and an engaged community of fellow LunaYou participants,” among other features.

Wellbeing coach Lester told The Journal that a pregnant woman can have high-quality gynecological and obstetrical care, “but there are just some things that you don’t know, especially if this is your first time being pregnant or first time having a baby.

“Even if it’s not your first time, every pregnancy is so different. So you don’t know what to ask for. You don’t know what to look for. You don’t know good health care versus bad health care, you don’t know what to expect about labor and birth — and all of that causes anxiety and stress on our bodies. And so what we’re geared toward is really helping women to navigate through their pregnancies, help them find their voice so they can speak up for themselves.”

In Neighborhood’s June announcement of LunaYou, Dr. Yvonne Heredia, Neighborhood’s senior manager of care management and a principal in the new program, explained: “The critical aspect of LunaYou is its focus on pregnancy empowerment, as minority women historically have not been listened to by their providers during their pregnancies when expressing their concerns or symptoms. As a Black woman and someone who was homeless and pregnant in my teens, I speak from experience and see tremendous potential in LunaYou.”

The backdrop: Racial disparities of pregnancy 

In its announcement, Neighborhood Health Plan put racial and socio-economic disparities in context.

“The United States is facing a maternal health crisis and Rhode Island’s maternal health outcomes reflect national data,” the health-care organization stated. “Nationally, women are 50% more likely to die or experience a serious complication in childbirth than their mothers. Women on Medicaid are significantly more likely to develop life-threatening complications due to pregnancy than women who are privately insured. 

“Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women are. Black and Latina women experience rising and disproportionately higher rates of premature births than white women.”

Business Innovation Factory founder Saul Kaplan emphasized the impact LunaYou could have on these racial and socio-economic disparities. 

“Maternal health in Rhode Island, just like across the nation, is a social, racial and economic issue that must be addressed,” Kaplan said. “A growing body of research suggests that by enabling self-empowerment, social support and personalized wellbeing we can reduce the risk of poor maternal health outcomes. This is a preventable problem.”

In a 2015 report, “Minority Health Facts,” the Rhode Island Department of Health outlined health disparities tied to race, income, education and zip code.  A 2019 Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK special report examined disparities and life expectancy.

LunaYou: What’s behind the name LunaYou?

Wondering how they came up with the name?

Lester explained its origin, telling The Journal that “we started with imagery when branding LunaYou, one of our concepts centered on the moon. In myth and folklore, the moon has long been associated with women and their monthly cycles. We also loved the way the moon phases mirrored a woman’s growing belly during pregnancy.

“With equity as a core principle, we only considered names that would be understandable in both Spanish and English. Luna with its Latin roots was perfect. “You” refers to the personalization of the program: it’s not one size fits all, it’s flexible to address each women’s individual needs. And so, LunaYou was born!”

Talking about ‘everything’

During a recent virtual interview with The Journal, Harris and Lester spoke of the close relationship they developed during the months they have connected regularly by phone, the primary means of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Some of the talks we’ve had are to help and empower her,” Lester said, “help her to have those conversations with her doctor to explain what’s going on.”

“Having someone there to talk to whenever I need, night or day,” has been crucial, Harris said. “We’ve talked about my past, we’ve talked about my future, we’ve talked about everything and it really, it really helped me get through my pregnancy.” In ways, Lester said, that are not possible otherwise.

“You can read other people’s stories, but you don’t know how your situation is going to turn out,” she said. Aly’anna Donna Shelton, the baby born to Harris and her partner, Tyler Shelton, today is “doing great,” Lester said. So is Harris.

Call it a LunaYou success. 

“I would definitely recommend this for any pregnant woman,” Harris said.

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