Brightly colored chalk covers the sidewalk outside the Burkeys’ home in west Wichita.
There are ABCs and names: Mama, Daddy, Kamben and Maxton.
Kamben is a toddling 19-month-old. He likes “Thomas the Tank Engine” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
But Maxton will forever be 7 weeks old to his parents, Kelci and Kevin.
On May 17, 2011, Maxton stopped breathing.
He was one of 247 Kansas infants who died that year – and continue to die each year, as the state’s infant death rates exceed the national average.
In May 2011, Maxton was at his second day at a home day care. Though the sitter had done everything right – he was on his back, alone in a crib – when she checked on him, he was blue.
Emergency responders were able to resuscitate him. But nine days later, the Burkeys made the painful decision to remove him from life support.
“The only brain activity he had were seizures,” Kelci Burkey said. “He didn’t do any of the normal things. He didn’t have the pupil response or show any perception to pain. He didn’t have any of that.
“It was really hard for us, and that is not an easy decision that any parent should have to make. But as parents, we knew that that wasn’t Max,” she said. “Max was – he never smiled – but he was a happy baby. He was always sticking out his tongue. Seeing him lay there like that, that wasn’t Max.”
Authorities recorded the official cause of death as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
“We were mad,” Kevin Burkey said. “We wanted a reason or a why and that’s nothing. That’s completely inconclusive.
“Basically, they don’t know that it’s anything else. It was hard to hear.”Slow progress
That’s the heartache behind the numbers.
Although the state of Kansas had record-low infant death rates in 2011, the rate increased 2.8 percent in 2012, when 254 children in Kansas died before their first birthday.
For some groups, such as African-Americans and residents in rural areas, the rate of infant deaths is even higher.
Longer term, rates for infant deaths in Kansas have steadily declined since the state began tracking the numbers more than 100 years ago. Generally, worldwide, infant mortality rates decline as health care, living conditions and nutrition improve for mothers and their children.
“We consider every infant death a sentinel event and something to pay attention to,” said Greg Crawford, Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s director of vital statistics data analysis.
The estimated rate of infant deaths for the U.S. in 2013 is 5.9 out of 1,000 live births, only slightly better than countries such as Croatia and Bosnia, according to theCIA World Factbook
The U.S. ranks 50th best of 224 countries, worse than Hungary (5.16), Japan (2.17) and most of Europe.
According to theKansas Department of Health and Environment
, the overall Kansas resident rate was 6.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012.
One statistic that has especially troubled Kansas health care providers is the historically high rates of mortality for black infants. It’s still about three times higher than whites, even though all of the rates have declined over the last 20 years.
There are also differences in rates between rural and urban counties. State statistics for 2012 show that rural and densely settled rural areas have higher rates than urban counties.Reducing SIDS risks
The factors behind infant deaths are complicated, said Christy Schunn, executive director of the Kansas Infant Death and SIDS Network, a nonprofit support network based in Wichita that provides services to families across the state and works to raise awareness of sudden infant death.
“The death of a child is a complicated loss,” Schunn said. “It is unnatural. Our societal norms are that older people die and that parents die before children.
“So it’s an unnatural process to have a child die before a parent. We don’t anticipate that, and we have no preparation.”