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One Midwife’s Story

FOLLOW YOUR BLISS

Joseph Campbell was one of my father’s favorite authors.  He compared myths from numerous cultures and times and basically taught that all myths are the same.  He inspired me to be the author of my own story.  And to look for the bliss in my life.  Bill Moyers did an extensive interview with Campbell where he explains the idea of following your bliss.

“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.  I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”  -Joseph Campbell

 

HOW WOMEN’S HEALTH GETS UNDER YOUR SKIN

When I was a young woman, still in high school, I came across a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.  This book changed my life and started my path into feminism.  I am not talking about hardcore feminism, but the kind of radical idea that is based on the idea that women can do their own health care.  I spent my youth learning about self-exams right beside other women.  It involved a lot of mirrors, plastic speculums, and looking up information in medical textbooks. Had I found my bliss?  I learned how to identify parts of my anatomy that had been previously known as “down there.”  I will never forget the thrill of seeing my cervix the first time.  This was the door to my womb that would someday carry an embryo that would become the baby that I would carry in my arms.  I was 18 years old.  

 

FINDING A GLIMMER OF YOUR BLISS

When I finished undergraduate school, I moved to the southern part of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico.  It was only seven hours south of El Paso, so I could come home on a weekend if I wanted to.  I simply wanted to leave the United States and experience a different way of living.  I was not disappointed.  One of my many adventures in Mexico was the day I met a Raramuri woman who invited me to her home.  Her “home” was literally a cardboard box.  While she made tea we talked about our lives and what we had learned from our experiences.  At one point she noticed I was staring at a bundled-up cloth setting on a large rock.  It appeared to be one of just a few possessions she owned.  She told me that it was her “instruments.”  I asked her more because I simply did not understand.  She told me she was a “ partera”, someone who catches the babies.  I told her I was full of respect for her and her profession and informed her that we no longer had Midwives in the USA, only obstetricians.  On my walk home I was sad that I could not be a midwife. I felt as if I had met one of the last of a generation.  The Our Bodies, Ourselves book had talked about midwives, but I was sure they did not exist anymore.  To me, midwives connected with women and were a vital part of having a healthy birth.  My sadness was interrupted by a letter I received that very day from a dear friend who wrote about the birth of her daughter.  The birth had happened just that week and the Midwives had done a spectacular job.  MIDWIVES?  Could this be my bliss?  It seemed that there was divine intervention here.   I later discovered that El Paso, my hometown, had one of the few schools in the USA where someone could train to be a midwife.  This school was also a birth clinic where my friend had given birth.

 

I returned to El Paso and immediately started doing volunteer work at The Maternity Center in El Paso.  I met amazing women who were dedicated and learning midwifery and how to serve women during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. 

 

THAT MOMENT YOU KNOW YOUR BLISS

 

After about a month of volunteering, mostly helping women fill out their initial intake information, I was invited to a birth.  They opened the birth room door and told me to come quickly.  All they needed was for me to write down the time and anything they said to write down.  There were three midwives in the room, the birthing mother and me.  The midwife was sweating.  She was on a step stool over the mother pushing on her upper abdomen.   I would later learn that this was the Kristellar maneuver or fundal pressure.  I was later taught as a midwife to never do this procedure and I have never seen another midwife do this procedure since.   The midwife used so much force she put her foot through the wall behind her.  The birthing woman was screaming, and the other two women were at the vaginal introitus working on trying to get the baby born.   Everyone was sweating.  I dutifully wrote down everything they told me and made a special note of the birth time.  I also wrote down how many cc’s of blood loss, Apgar scores, and the mother’s vital signs.  

 

An hour later the midwives collapsed at the kitchen table.  The mother was stable, the baby was doing well and breastfeeding like a champ and the teenaged single mom’s father came to see his daughter and his new grandson.  All was well in the world.  I felt like I was flying above the room.  I systematically went from one midwife to the next giving them each a bit of an energetic neck massage.  I was beaming, “That was amazing!  “First we were in the room with five people and then we were in the room with six!”  One of the exhausted midwives responded with a smile and said, “Oh, you are going to be one.” I knew she meant I would be a midwife. “Really, do you think so?”  I knew so, and I also knew at that moment not only would I someday be a midwife, but I would also train other women to be midwives.  At that moment I knew what I was going to do with my life, I knew my purpose, I knew my bliss.  I was 23 years old.

 

FIRST DETOUR – New Orleans for a Master’s in Public Health

I spent that summer immersed in midwifery studies.  I could not get enough; I applied to the midwifery school and would start in September.  In early August, I got a call from the Dean of Tulane telling me I had been accepted into their master’s program for Public Health.  What?  Oh, yes, now I remember I wrote out that application last spring – applying for next year’s program.  The Dean informed me that an opening had come through and asked whether I would be able to be there in two weeks.  Did I want to go to New Orleans to study International Public Health – specializing in Maternal and Child Health?  It seemed like a good thing.  A master’s in public health was not so common back then and I really wanted to be a midwife.  In the end, I figured I could do some studying in midwifery at Tulane.   Besides, New Orleans sounded like an adventure I had to try out.   I packed my bags.  I was 26 years of age at the time.

 

New Orleans is a strange place.  It has its own language – odd words for common things, occasional hurricanes to make things interesting, and the city loves celebrations.  Any day of the week is a reason for a party.  And yes, they really do have jazz bands walking down the streets playing in the wake of funerals.  I was glad I had been in Mexico because it prepared me for New Orleans (NOLA).   NOLA is great preparation if you intend on someday leaving the country – you can’t drink the water, they have giant flying cockroaches, and several other unspeakable crawly things and they don’t hide their invalids or mental health cases.  I saw someone on a skateboard with no legs.  I am not sure if she was mentally ill or not, but the Duck Lady rode around on roller skates followed by 6-10 ducklings.   Don’t even get me started on Mardi Gras, where the city determines how successful the celebration was by the tons of garbage that is collected in the days following the celebration.  I did Mardi Gras once and left the city for the second one. 

 

I was in NOLA for two years and mostly spent my nose in books, studying at my kitchen table in my typical “shotgun house” and making 3 am night runs to Café du Monde for chicory coffee and beignets.  I also spent hours and hours in Tulane’s massive libraries.  Folks asked me what I learned during my master’s program, and I usually answered that I learned how to research.  I also learned how to start a maternity center from the ground up. I did arrange a special topics class on midwifery during my program and I did take a few classes from a local midwife where I got to feel my very first placenta.  I also worked at a bookstore for a few months and was able to start my midwifery library.  New Orleans was a fabulous experience, but I wanted to be a midwife.

 

I returned to El Paso at the end of 1983 with my master’s in Public Health diploma clutched in my hands.  I began preparing for my entry into midwifery school and applied to a midwifery school founded by Deborah Kaley.  Kaley had been one of the midwives whom I had worked with in 1980 during my volunteer times at The Maternity Center.  She accepted me into the fall program of 1984 – starting in September 1984.  I was excited and started doing some studying and trying to figure out what I was going to do between the Spring and Fall of 1984.  I was on my way to being a midwife.

 

SECOND DETOUR – Five years in Africa – learning I really did want to be a midwife

Monday morning on the 2 nd of April, 1984 my mother woke me in a frantic voice telling me a telegram and package had come.  Who sends telegrams?  Even then it was rare.  My mother only knew telegrams as something that brought bad news.  The package was from Africa; Tanzania to be exact.  Enclosed was a one-way ticket to Arusha Tanzania and a two-year contract with a primary school for children of expatriates.  Oh, yes, now I remember I applied to teach at that school thinking I might be able to get over there and find a job in health.   Yes, this was an adventure I could not say no to. So, I called up Kaley at the midwifery school and told her I would see her in two years. I was 28 years old.

 

I lived in Tanzania for nearly five years.  Talk about adventures!  I moved sixteen times in the span of those five years.  

 

The first birth I attended in Tanzania was in a remote village in the Western part of the country.  I was being “interviewed” by the local government.  They wanted to put me in “jail” because I did not have my passport with me.  I did not understand that I needed a passport as I had no intention of leaving the country during my travels.  I was willing to go to their mud hut “jail” because I knew they would feed me and that my friends would figure it out.  In the meantime, a woman frantically ran into the “courtroom” under the mango tree and told them I was needed at a birth.  They released me and never asked any more of me.

 

We ran to the hut where the birth was taking place.  The baby had been born but was not breathing.  I had taken a resuscitation course two months prior and began giving the baby breaths.  We got the baby started and stabilized the mother.  

 

In this tribe, the Midwife names the child.  I thought that was a privilege that only parents should have, but they insisted it was the midwife’s duty in their culture.  This first little girl I named after my mother.  

 

I attended several births when I was in Tanzania.  I went through all my family names and then started with religious figures.  Later, I found out that one chunky baby was named after me.  Katia was terrified of me when I met her as a little girl.  Apparently, I was the equivalent of the boogie man who would take her to America if she was not good.  Now, she has grown children of her own.

 

I worked on numerous projects in East Africa. Some of those stories I will share in other posts. However, one project was writing booklets for village women on “How to Raise Healthy Children.”   I spent two years working with village health workers and local midwives on this project.  I have since learned that the project is still in existence with Tanzanians in charge.  That was my goal – to work myself out of a job.  I truly loved working in Tanzania and East Africa.  During that project, I was doing a review with the head writer of the series of booklets about my true love, midwifery.  She asked me a question that haunted me, “and why are you not following your bliss?”  It was then that I knew it was time to return home.   I was 33 years old.

 

THIRD DETOUR – Marriage – oh yes, that is a Commitment

I returned from Africa in 1989.  I got married within 3 months and was again accepted into midwifery school.  Within a month of being married, I went to meet Kaley at the birth center.  

“Kaley, this marriage thing is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”  I needed to concentrate on this relationship.  I was also still in culture shock from returning to the US.  Everything was different.  

 

I did not give up midwifery, I still had my books and I still spent time every week studying.  It was still my bliss.  I was discouraged.  I couldn’t find a job and that was depressing.  I later realized a job might have taken me down another path.  I would have spent the rest of my life wishing I was a midwife.   I had tried to find a midwife to work with and the doors never seemed to open.  Eventually, a friend introduced me to a local midwife in Las Cruces, New Mexico who accepted me as an apprentice.  I couldn’t believe it.  FINALLY.  I remember going around the house singing, “I’m going to be a midwife, I’m going to be a midwife.”  Yes, I was in bliss.

 

THE FOURTH TIME IS THE CHARM 

By the end of the year, I applied to Maternidad La Luz again.  Apparently, the fourth time is the charm.  “Are you sure this time?”   Yes, I replied.  I was never unsure.  It was eleven years since I had been present at that birth that had changed my life.  I was 34 and finally officially following my bliss.

 

I started midwifery school on 4 January 1991.  That also happened to be my first day of my LMP – my last menstrual period.  Yes, only weeks into starting the program I found out I was pregnant.  I had what obstetrics refers to as “habitual miscarriages” – what a terrible term.  I was not having miscarriages because it was a habit.  Neither was I elderly at 35.  Another terrible term – elderly primigravida.  I was also high-risk because of being obese.  And what was I going to say to Kaley?  I was terrified to tell her.  I considered not telling her…I was obese; maybe she wouldn’t figure it out.   I had found out I was pregnant because due to a bad case of bronchitis.  The doctor was smart and did a pregnancy test before giving me antibiotics.  I was shocked.  I eventually went to talk to Kaley, and she asked me what I wanted to do.  I was so grateful for her giving me the choice and not just telling me I was dismissed.  I chose to stay.  Next to giving birth, midwifery school was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I worked three 24-hour shifts and attended three classes weekly.  Sometimes the 24-hour shifts lasted longer when being the primary at a birth.  It was exhausting and I was pregnant.

 

I made it through Midwifery school and received my New Mexico license.  In October of the same year, I gave birth to my 10-pound, 12-ounce son surrounded by my husband and loving midwives.  Yes vaginally, and yes with a third-degree tear.  It was worth it.  I was 35 years old.

 

EVERYDAY MIDWIFERY WORK

I worked on the US-Mexico border for 24 years; serving many families, teaching numerous apprentices, and serving on the New Mexico Midwifery Advisory Board.  In New Mexico, midwives are governed by the Department of Health. The advisory board serves to help the midwives self-govern when issues come up.   I loved my life, living my bliss.  However, after decades of working as a midwife, I was starting to get itchy feet.

 

MEXICO AGAIN – NEW KINDS OF BLISS ARE POSSIBLE

I worked on the US/Mexico border for decades.  Through the years, I started having Mennonite families from Cuauhtémoc Chihuahua seeking me out for their OOH (out of hospital) births.   Mennonites look for care providers and every other service mostly from word of mouth.  This is not a community that depends on Google for information, especially seeking out midwives. They ask their friends and their church members.   They started hearing about me and would make the trip north to have their babies with a midwife. 

 

 I first came to Mexico for a visit in 2014.  I gave three talks to 45 women who showed up with two days’ notice.  It was very clear to me that I was needed in the community. I spoke about humanized birth, VBAC, and Menopause.  I also took the time to visit the local community hospital. I discovered the Cesarean rate was 45%, while the national average was just under 40%.  I also learned that VBAC was almost unheard of and that breastfeeding in the Mennonite community was not common.

 

At the request of several young women, I started a Doula Training program.  Women who could accompany birthing women.  The hospital did not allow husbands to come into the birth room.  Doulas were allowed – as women and as translators.  It was not easy to get permission for the Doulas to work in the hospital.  Through the years we have had easy access and sometimes have been forbidden in the hospital.  

 

At 60 years of age, I moved to Mexico with the intention of staying two years to train some women as midwives.  The midwifery school is based on international standards.  The Chihuahua department of health came to visit and was impressed with what we were doing.  Education is always a good thing.  

 

A private hospital approached me to help them with Humanized birth.  We opened a free-standing birth room at the hospital.  A room was. administered and staffed by local midwives and doulas.  Truly an amazing and inspirational project that influenced me in staying in Mexico.    

 

The women I have trained are now providing midwifery care in their mother tongue. They have helped teach classes to the community on many maternal health topics, have taught childbirth preparation classes, VBAC become a viable option, supported many women in breastfeeding, made it possible for women to have more options in where to give birth, made midwifery care the norm and have improved maternal and fetal outcomes in the community.  

 

Presently, I am traveling to get training in Breech Birth.  I hope to never stop learning.  Life is an adventure to enjoy.  

 

I am still on my winding path.  Starting with finding that women’s health was my passion and then finding midwifery.  The road to becoming a midwife was fraught with all sorts of obstacles, but I never gave up and I finally achieved my goal.  It took so many times trying to get my training, and finally, I made it happen.

 

Now my winding path is sharing my knowledge with a new generation of midwives.  I spend my days’ training, inspiring, and mentoring others on this path.  I am now a community midwife, training more community midwives who are changing the face of maternity care in their communities.

I never could have imagined what I am doing now, and I cannot even begin to imagine what will come next.

 

It is not an easy thing to figure out your “bliss”.  What keeps you up at night and makes you want to get up in the morning.  The place where time melts and all you did was what makes you happiest.  Once you find it, go after it.  If you do something else in the meantime, you will always wish you went after your bliss first.  I remember mentors in my life telling me to do something with my life, something that made me happy.  It took a while to get there, but it has been fabulous ever since.   I am presently 65.  Every day I do something to follow my bliss.   Find your bliss.  

 

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