Friday, July 1, 2016

The Servant Heart of a Midwife

Kitty Ernst turns 90 this year. And this is the story she told to new and old midwives in Alberquerque last month.

Kitty told of how when she first went to the Frontier School in Kentucky she had no intention of becoming a midwife. When she learned that the reason most students were there was to become a midwife she wanted nothing of it and planned to leave. The reason she did not want to become a midwife is because she had been exposed to "obstetrics". What she had seen up to that time of obstetrics left her with the image of doctors and nurses standing over suffering women and telling them what to do to get their baby out. She hated it. She was not going to do "obstetrics".

But a wise teacher told Kitty that she should at least see one midwifery birth in a home before she left the school. So very soon she was taken to a home where a woman was in labor. There were sleeping children in the small room where the woman was sitting up in her bed so everyone was very quiet. Kitty was amazed to see the midwife at the feet of the woman looking up to her talking softly. The midwife rubbed her feet, asked her if she wanted water, told her she was strong, and held her when she was in pain.

Kitty had lightbulbs go off in her head. THIS was MIDWIFERY????!!!!! This image of the midwife as a servant to the woman was something that clicked with her core values. She decided on the spot to stay at that school and become a midwife. And what a midwife she has been!

I was not the only one in the room that night that teared up when Kitty told this story. Jessica Jordan and I looked at each other with our blurred-from-tears vision and acknowledged that the story was pretty much pinging on every string of our soul.

One of the things we struggle with so much in Haiti is the culture of class that partly stems from their long history of slavery. In Haiti it is not uncommon to treat anyone who has not received as much education or make as much money as you as a lower-class citizen and worthy of your scorn. So one of the barriers to skilled care in pregnancy and birth is that Haitian women stay away from places where they are talked to and treated as if they are nothing.

We constantly tell our students to treat patients as if they were their sister, their mother, their friend. We talk about compassion, caring, gentle touch, and the importance of listening to women.
But the servant heart of the midwife is the hardest thing to teach. Especially if you have never experienced that kind of caring in your life.

We tell our volunteers repeatedly that if they do nothing else but demonstrate compassion to patients, then they have made a dent in the hearts of the staff and students and demonstrated true midwifery. This year I am thinking of what we could do for our students that would make them feel the compassion and gentleness of unconditional love. How can they show what they may have never experienced?

This picture is of one of our grads pouring water over her patient's head in an effort to cool her. She is being a servant midwife.

Every woman on this earth has experienced suffering in some form. It may have been spiritual, physical, or mental pain. She may have suffered alone or been blessed by caring sisters of the heart who held her up when she was down. The time of birth always hurts. No one can take away all the pain - although in some cases we have the means to come pretty close to painless. But most women in this world birth without access to medications so they rely on their family, their mothers, sisters, and significant others to see them through the deep waters of childbirth.

I try to remember this when I am with strangers in any setting. Here before me is someone who has suffered, especially if she is a woman. The statistics of domestic violence, rape, and trafficking are sobering. Every midwife has heard the stories, cried the tears, screamed inside at the injustices that women endure all over the world. Childbirth is just one time when women suffer.

Whether you are a man or a woman, you need someone to be your servant when you are suffering. I am learning that a lot of midwives get into hospice care when they stop catching babies. Care at the end of life is another form of servant midwifery. Some of you remember Brother Mike McCarthy who was a Xaverian Brother at the Maisson Fortune in Hinche. He was a gentle and sweet soul who let a lot of midwives cry on his shoulder after hard things happened to them in Haiti. When he left Haiti he told me he was finishing three months of training to be a hospice worker. I said, "Brother Mike. you are going to be a midwife to the dying!" He gleamed. He could not think of a greater thing than to join the ranks of all of the "servant" midwives.

This is Beth McHoul and her patient who is in labor. A midwife at Heartline Ministries in Tabarre, Haiti. A servant midwife every day of her life.

This is Rebecca Barlow, student midwife, demonstrating servant midwifery at St. Damien Hospital in Haiti. She is a Frontier Midwifery student.

Being a servant midwife takes emotional and physical and mental energy. What midwives get in return for what they spend is the knowledge that there would be no soul in their work without servanthood. No matter who you are, if you helped someone who was suffering today, you are a servant midwife.

Let's all be a servant to each other. This world needs more servant hearts. Thanks for reminding us, Kitty!

Photo credits:

Photo of Marie Denise by BD Colen, Photo of Beth McHoul by Tara Livesay, Photo of Rebecca Barlow by Maribeth Quinn.