Doula program informs, empowers pregnant women

VCU Nursing students learn appropriate care-taking techniques as part of their training to become doulas. Photo by Chris Conway.
VCU Nursing students learn appropriate care-taking techniques as part of their training to become doulas. Photo by Chris Conway.

Zoë Dehmer
Staff Writer

As a borderline high-risk pregnancy mother, senior photography major Micki Multer was scared. While Multer was pregnant, she had three jobs in addition to staying in school.

“It was very unhealthy, but now I have a healthy baby so I can’t complain,” she said. “But I was always so exhausted. I was sick throughout my whole pregnancy.”

When Multer started having painful contractions last March, she and her boyfriend decided to head to the hospital. Once they arrived, a triage nurse confirmed that she was 4.5 cm dilated. Multer was put on a labor-inducing drug immediately.

But things quickly went south for Multer and her baby. “I had the monitors on the outside of my stomach for Levi’s heart and all of a sudden his heart rate dropped,” she said. She said she felt panicked.

The doctor on call ordered an emergency C-section to deliver the baby safely.

“I didn’t choose any kind of birth,” she said. “The next thing I knew I heard him crying. It was weird. I was in there for six hours and then the C-section took 20 minutes.”

Had Multer known about VCU Nursing’s new clinical studies program to train students to become professional non-medical birthing companions, called doulas, her story may have been different.

VCU Nursing students are taking the initiative to train to become professional non-medical birthing companions, called doulas, through a new clinical studies class in the School of Nursing.

As part of their required nursing school clinical hours, the doula group has chosen to train and practice their skills and now volunteers their services free of charge to help mothers-to-be.

The School of Nursing Doulas (SOND) are lead by professor Sue Lindner. Lindner said although clinical experience is required for nursing students to graduate, the choice to be a doula requires a very thoughtful commitment.

“This isn’t something they’ve thought about over a day,” Linder said. “This is truly the essence of service. They have made a commitment to serve this population of people that desire to have a doula and can’t afford it.”

As doulas, the students are assigned to a mother that requests support. They provide complementary therapy to that mother throughout the final stages of their pregnancy, usually beginning around seven months.

During that time, a doula’s job is to be the mother’s advocate in and out of the hospital. The doula offers insight about what to expect next in a pregnancy and provides information about being healthy, breast feeding and what options are available for delivery of the baby. Most importantly, a doula’s job is to support women.

“Birth has become so medicalized that doulas really are advocates for women and their families,” Linder said. “Because if you can birth and be empowered to do so, you gain confidence as a woman. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Nancy Harris, a women’s health specialist at the VCU Wellness Resource Center, said that if a woman becomes pregnant, VCU can also offer some initial help and guidance tools.

“If they come to Student Health we have a brochure that discusses pregnancy options and gives contact information for someone that would like to consider adoption, abortion or if they want to carry the pregnancy to term,” she said. “We also talk with the students and answer any questions they may have.”

But Multer was scared of natural birth and unaware of other options available to her through both VCU and before the delivery. Because she didn’t have the time to take birthing classes or read educational books, she used the Internet and apps on her phone to answer any questions she had about what to expect.

Multer’s gynecologist never mentioned the option of hiring a doula to support her during her pregnancy.

“Something like a doula probably would have been very useful, someone I could call up or talk to when I needed it,” Multer said.

The cost of hiring a doula varies across the country, with prices nearing $2,000 in some states. In the Richmond area, they generally cost between $600 and $700, according to Lindner. Nursing students involved in the SOND program volunteer their care to low-income mothers across Richmond.

“(Doulas are) costly,” said Lindner. “Many people are alone. Many of the moms who we take care of, their partners are incarcerated, they don’t have support people. So the students are their support people. The moms rely on them.”

Rachel Lape, a senior in the School of Nursing and a participant in the SOND group, explained that the student doulas try to educate mothers beforehand to avoid emergency situations like Multer’s and give the mother more control of their own birth.

“We tell them that we’re going to be there for them but they have to have their own voice,” Lape said. “When a decision needs to be made during the birth, we can tell everyone to leave the room and we’ll go over the risks and benefits of certain decision.”

The majority of women go into labor without a plan or knowing their options ahead of time, according to Lape. She believes these tools can help women like Multer have more successful deliveries.

“I’m all about empowering women and women’s health and that’s exactly what we do. It’s a lot of teaching and a lot of encouragement,” Lape said.

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