Marked by a devastating entry into parenthood, Indiana State University doctoral student Teirra Riggs has turned tragedy into triumph, manifesting a pay-it-forward attitude.
Riggs’ first pregnancy resulted in an unexplained stillbirth of her daughter at 20 weeks gestation. Days after the birth, Riggs remembers breastmilk leaking onto her computer while doing her doctoral work.
“I didn’t have any education about what to do next,” Riggs says. “…Coming home with breasts full of milk and no baby, it was a very tumultuous time for me.”
Even so, through the mental health upset and distress, she remained committed to her doctoral program.
Two years later, Riggs became pregnant again. At six weeks pregnant, she learned through an employer health program screening that her blood sugar level was dangerously high, resulting in a diagnosis of gestational diabetes.
Riggs gave birth to her son at 37 weeks. Although her baby was born full term, over the next six months he would be diagnosed with failure to thrive– a set of words that became quite triggering for Riggs.
“I knew I wanted to breastfeed,” she begins. “But I didn’t know what that would look like as a diabetic.”
With the goal of increasing her baby’s weight, Riggs worked tirelessly with lactation care providers, all the while, the words “failure to thrive” playing over and over in her mind. She and her son went on to nurse for nine months.
In many ways, Riggs felt the void of lactation and breastfeeding support as a Black woman, but she had some cheerleaders along the way. She and her dissertation committee chair Dr. Darleesa Doss were expecting their first babies at the same time and Riggs says she found comfort in that peer support.
“She was an immense support for me,” Riggs says.
The department’s secretary, Ms. Susan Crist, would sometimes look after Riggs’ sleeping baby while she taught class. And when space wasn’t available for Riggs to pump, they made space for her in the women’s volleyball locker room.
“Academia can be male-centered and male-led, so it was nice to have that nurturing support,” Riggs says. “It was an immeasurable experience.”
The personal experiences of birthing and parenting as a diabetic quickly became inspiration and a vested interest in her professional life.
Riggs currently serves as the Diabetes Prevention Coordinator at the Indiana State Department of Health. In this role, she works with employers encouraging them to adopt the CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Network (DPP) Platform — a yearlong lifestyle training course for those at risk for diabetes. The platform is now offered on a virtual platform called Inspire Health.
“Research has shown through this implementation, it works to get people off of their medication when they are aware of healthier lifestyles,” Riggs begins. “Prevention works. Promotion works.”
Over the next nine months, Riggs’ doctoral research will look more specifically at the lived experiences of Black women after pregnancies complicated by gestational diabetes, breastfeeding, and later risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Although Black women are not most at risk for gestational diabetes, they have a 56 percent higher rate of developing Type 2 Diabetes five to seven years after delivery, Riggs explains.
She says she hopes to explore and understand what happens during this time period: What are Black women’s perception of risk of developing diabetes after a complicated pregnancy? What does access to care look like for Black women who receive this diagnosis? What are the psychological impacts on Black women during this time?
“[The class] was a great fit for my research endeavors,” Riggs explains. “[The LCTC] will help me pay it forward after working with the lactation care providers that embraced me.”
She adds, “Even if you are diagnosed with a condition, breastfeeding is still possible when you have the right support system around. I want to change the narrative showing that Black women breastfeed.”
In the future, Riggs hopes to present her experiences and findings through a TED Talk.