2022 Innovator Award Winner

Graduate Student | Second Place

Priscilla Marie Colon, MBA’22

Dedicated to reducing maternal mortality worldwide

Priscilla Marie Colon is on a Quest to Reduce Maternal Mortality in the U.S. and Abroad

by Ian Thomson   |   November 4, 2022

After witnessing a near-fatal birthing experience in Bihar, India, Priscilla Marie Colon dedicated herself to ensuring more women receive quality care during childbirth. She received funding to start an initiative focused on educating nearly 200 birth attendants in Nigeria on how to respond to obstetric emergencies during childbirth. Now, Colon seeks to make a larger impact by creating a nonprofit aimed at reducing preventable maternal deaths and improving maternal health using her Northeastern business education.

Priscilla Marie Colon has traveled to 22 countries and all seven continents. She’s learned from midwives in eastern India, where she also helped save the life of a newborn baby. She’s certified as a doula with two master’s degrees. She was named one of Boston’s “Latino 30 Under 30” from El Mundo Boston in 2018. And she’s just getting started.

As a Latina woman working in healthcare, Colon knows first-hand that someone’s race can affect the care they receive. Indeed, a study by the National Academy of Medicine found that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality healthcare than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.”

These are not small things. By “lower-quality healthcare,” researchers from the National Academy of Medicine meant concrete, inferior care: People who are not white are less likely to be given “appropriate cardiac care, to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, and to receive the best treatments for strokes, cancer, or AIDS.”

These disparities were only exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Pacific Islander people experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to white people, numerous studies have found.

For Colon, who studied women’s health while earning her master’s degree in global health at the University of California, San Francisco, the most jarring disparities appear in maternal health.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that “Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women,” a rate that only increases with the age of the pregnant person. The federal agency also finds that as many as 80 percent of those deaths are preventable, with the right education and timely care. This summer, President Joe Biden declared it a “maternal health crisis,” and developed a 70-page plan for improvements.

“Women of color in this country are dying at disproportionate rates, something that links back to structural racism, implicit bias, and variation in quality healthcare,” Colon says. “Women of color face greater health, social, and economic disparities. And it has a real cost on achieving health equity.”

So, Colon, who graduated from the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern this year, is doing something about it.

Together with her co-founders, Anita Nwanna-Nzewunwa and Bre Calhoun, Colon is creating a national nonprofit organization to reduce maternal mortality rates. The group is still working out a name for the organization, and eventually hope to take the organization global. But for her work in maternal health over the past seven years, Colon was recognized with a 2022 Innovator Award, a competition hosted by Northeastern’s Women Who Empower that drew more than 100 entries this year.

Nwanna-Nzewunwa, who is a resident doctor in the Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency Program; Calhoun, a certified doula and doctoral student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Colon, a certified doula with experience building global maternal health programs, are attacking the problem on a few different fronts.

“Women of color face greater health, social, and economic disparities. And it has a real cost on achieving health equity.”

—Priscilla Marie Colon

“Women of color face greater health, social, and economic disparities. And it has a real cost on achieving health equity.”

—Priscilla Marie Colon

The first goal of their nonprofit organization is to educate mothers and families about what to expect during their pregnancy and births—and how to recognize warning signs. The second goal is to establish a network of doulas who can advocate for women within the healthcare system and guide them through their pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period. Finally, they plan to leverage simulation training to address structural biases within the healthcare system, including implicit biases that contribute to adverse and potentially dangerous outcomes for people of color.

“When we see women who come in for prenatal visits, we see them monthly until they’re 28 weeks along,” says Nwanna-Nzewunwa. “What happens during the other 29 days in the month? Who addresses their physical, emotional, and informational needs? The same goes for the postpartum period: You see your doctor after six weeks, but what happens between when you have a baby and that six-week mark?”

Doulas, they say, can provide support the rest of the time. Studies from the American Health Association have shown women who receive doula support reduce their odds of a cesarean delivery by almost 41 percent, lowered their odds of preterm birth by 22 percent, and were two times less likely to experience a complication involving themselves or their baby. Importantly for Colon and Nwanna-Nzewunwa, community-based doulas can also help to mitigate racial maternal health inequities and advocate for equitable care. Colon understands this critical role intimately.

In 2015, while she was studying for her master’s degree in global health, Colon spent three months in India studying the care that people giving birth received. She lived among midwives in Bihar, and interviewed them about the systemic roadblocks they faced in caring for pregnant people.

One day, Colon, her mentor, and her academic advisor traveled to a hospital in Delhi to observe the maternal wing. While walking around the floor, she noticed a newborn baby, placed on a table away from its mother, and laying silent. The baby was alive, but couldn’t breathe, something the nurses hadn’t identified by the time Colon walked by, she says. Colon rushed to seek help and her mentor resuscitated the baby, who then belted out a nice strong cry, Colon says.

It all comes back to education and preparation, she says. The following year, Colon teamed up with two of her UCSF classmates to create a global health program that focused on training traditional birth attendants in Nigeria to respond to obstetric emergencies. The organization won a grant from the D-Prize organization that enabled them to train 200 birth attendants, distribute more than 1,000 packets of the lifesaving misoprostol tablets (used to treat hemorrhaging during birth), and produce 200 birth-delivery kits to ensure safe birth deliveries.

It’s in that spirit that Colon and her co-founders plan to expand education about birthing and equip women with the tools to have a safe pregnancy and birth.

“For me and my co-founders,” Colon says, “it’s about working diligently to make an impact because we care about women. Girls who dream become women with vision, and I want to maintain the integrity of my own promises to myself—as well as those of women everywhere.”