An Advocate for Women
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Dr. Cornelia Graves Raises Awareness around High-Risk Maternity Care
Cornelia Graves, MD, is giving hope to high-risk obstetric patients. Now director of Perinatal Services at Ascension Saint Thomas and medical director of Tennessee Maternal Fetal Medicine, the Arkansas native developed a passion for science early on, majoring in chemistry at Baylor University as a precursor to medical school.
"I made up my mind that medicine was the way to go, because I wanted to have an impact on society in a way that helped women," said Graves, whose parents were both educators. After attending the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Graves landed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for her residency and fellowship, becoming the first black female in the school's Obstetrics program.
"When they accepted me in 1987, Dr. Frank Boehm was my mentor, and his example at the bedside made me interested in high-risk care," she said of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine co-founder. Graves said his mentoring also was instrumental in her becoming the first black woman promoted to senior academic status within Vanderbilt and to her 1993 appointment as medical director of Vanderbilt's Obstetric Intensive Care Unit.
"He wanted to start a critical care OB program," she explained. "I'd interviewed for fellowships other places, but he came to me knowing I was interested in critical care." After a period of trauma training, Graves served as the first OB resident and fellow in Vanderbilt's ICU. "They made a place for me and treated me like any fellow," Graves remembered. "I became an ICU fellow and then director of the OB critical care unit, which at the time was one of a few freestanding units in the country."
Spending nearly two decades at VUMC in training and service, Graves ultimately became division director of Maternal Fetal Services and assistant dean of Diversity before making a move to Ascension Saint Thomas.
Throughout her career, Graves has worked relentlessly to dispel the myth that 'pregnancy isn't that big of a deal.'
"When pregnant women get sick, they're very sick, which is something we don't really tell people," Graves said, noting strides being made locally in awareness and education. She's also seeing a bigger push for prenatal care education, too often dismissed by patients. "It gives us the opportunity to identify any disease processes patients may have so we can get them through pregnancy safely," Graves said.
She's also working to educate Nashville's medical community on the very real problem of maternal mortality, especially in black communities. "Minority communities don't seek medical care because they don't feel like the system listens to them," Graves said, praising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's HEAR HER campaign. The effort seeks to raise awareness of potentially life-threatening warning signs during and after pregnancy and improve communication between patients and providers.
Ascension Saint Thomas also has a grant from the State of Tennessee and CDC designed to increase and engage women, especially women of color, in knowledge of cardiac disease and pregnancy, she said. "Women don't know heart disease is the number one killer. In Tennessee, African American women are three times as likely to die from it. We're trying to empower women to understand risk factors."
According to Graves, 100 percent of pregnancy-related deaths among black women in Tennessee were preventable compared to a national average of 60 percent. She cites navigation, biases, and systemic issues within the healthcare system for women of color not getting the care they need.
In 2007, Graves made the move to Ascension Saint Thomas from VUMC. "Ascension is the largest deliverer of babies in the state of Tennessee; so when you talk about a system that knows obstetrics, you know they're really committed to quality," she said. "We think of our work as a ministry and not just a job and are ahead on protocols to keep women safe."
That commitment includes Ascension Saint Thomas's Midtown Level 4 Maternity Center, which serves mothers at the highest risk. They are also a Level 3 Neonatal Center, where preterm babies are resuscitated as early as 22-23 weeks.
Graves works tirelessly to bring awareness to the impact of high blood pressure and diabetes, since 25 percent of diabetes cases are poorly controlled. "There's a lot we still don't know in pregnancy, so we're working with thought leaders all over the world on prevention and treatment of diagnoses like preeclampsia."
COVID-19 brought a unique challenge to Graves, as well. "We rarely saw hospitalizations in women under age 50 unless they were pregnant," she said. "There's an inability to handle any increased respiratory stress because there's not much reserve left. These patients go from needing no support with breathing to falling off a cliff much more quickly where they may require ICU services."
Outside of her practice, Graves is a proud mother to Blair Adams, MS, a professional mental health counselor at Nashville's Zenith Consulting and Psychological Services. She often can be found serving the youth at Payne Chapel AMEC, where she has served as a youth choir director, bus driver, tutor and counselor.
When it comes to professional accomplishment, one of her proudest was being named to the Society of Maternal Fetal Medicine Board of Directors. While her term has expired, Graves remains very involved in the international organization and recently presented at a critical care obstetrics conference by Zoom for providers in Ethiopia.
"The thing I'm most proud of are the lives I've been able to touch," she said. "Not so much through me as a person, but the fact that we get to spread the love of the Creator to other people. That's very important to me, because there are a number of women and babies that may not have made it through pregnancy had it not been for some notion or word whispered in my ear from a higher power. Awards come and go, but that is a legacy I really want to leave."