By Joseph Robertia
In TV shows, giving birth often entails a woman in a hospital, lying in a mechanical bed, her knees held up to her shoulders and the doctor and nurses yelling, “PUSH!”
In life off the TV screen, though, not all women opt for this type of birth, preferring a range of options beyond the hospital model. On the central Kenai Peninsula, with the assistance and supervision of a midwife, some women choose to give birth at home or in the spalike setting of the only out-of-hospital birth center on the peninsula, which recently came under new management.
“We began managing it at the end of January and it’s all just happenstance, really,” said Kirsten Gerrish. She, along with her business partner, Lena Kilic, are the owners of Heritage Birth Centers in Anchorage and Palmer, and recently assumed management of Woman’s Way Midwifery in Soldotna.
Gerrish and Kilic are both state-licensed certified direct-entry midwives and have certifications in neonatal resuscitation, CPR and IV, and they said they weren’t necessarily looking to take on the responsibilities of a third birth center.
However, Andrea Stiers, the longtime manager and CDM midwife at Woman’s Way Midwifery, was preparing to retire to spend more time with her own family, and the other midwife there, Heather Forbes, had never managed a birth center of her own.
“We just thought the idea of there not being a birth center or any midwives on the peninsula, besides Homer, was just sad,” Gerrish said. “The community seemed supportive of keeping it going, there was the need, there already were the facilities with the license and a midwife already, so we decided to keep it going.”
Gerrish added that, populationwise, there aren’t more midwife services in the area.
“Alaska doesn’t have enough midwives or midwiferies to meet the need. The largest concentration is in Palmer, where there are three, currently, and a new one opening soon. Anchorage has two, Fairbanks has two and Juneau one, and with the population of the Kenai-Soldotna area it makes sense to have one,” Gerrish said.
Historically, she said, the Soldotna midwifery has averaged around 60 births a year, with as many as seven to 10 a month, including births at the center as well as those attended to by midwives at homes.
“We’ve already had four or five births just since we came on and several other home births,” Gerrick added.
Forbes, who assisted in the delivery of many of those babies, said the transition in management has gone well.
“It’s been really smooth considering how busy we’ve been,” she said.
Forbes said that the clientele of the midwifery has been, and continues to be, diverse.
“It’s not just hippies and alternative folks,” she said. It’s younger and older, alternative and mainstream-minded mothers-to-be, and people from all religions, she said.
“It’s a little bit of everybody and I think the common thing with all of them is they want choice and we provide informed choice — what all the benefits are, what all the risks are, etc. It’s empowering for people to make an informed choice about such an important life decision,” she said.
With so much demand, Gerrick said that they would like to add more midwives in Soldotna, since Forbes, always on call, is essentially working even when she is away from the center. Although, Gerrick said, Forbes is backed up by a Homer midwife, Amy Reedy, when the need arises.
“We’d like to have two and possibly even three midwives there, so the one we have doesn’t get burned out. We’re working hard on that and we’d also like to add an administrative position to help with phones and paperwork. We’re open Wednesday and Thursday right now, but with these additions we’d like to get up to being open four days a week,” she said.
Gerrick added that with the new management, all the previous services will be available, and with the addition of full staff, some new services will be offered, specifically massage therapy and more classes on childbirth and parenting, including some focused on the father’s role is and what he should expect. Classes on infant massage will be added, too.
Gerrick added that while the midwifery model of birth might not be right for all expectant mothers, it is important for them to have the option.
“We want women to be safe and have a great experience the whole way through their pregnancy and birth. If women want or need to be in the hospital, they should be,” she said. “But if they are low risk and want a peaceful birth in an optimum setting, with minimal intervening for mom and baby, they should have that option, too.”
Forbes added that the midwifery is important on the peninsula, because while some expectant mothers and their families will research and opt to use the birth center, or a home birth, or perhaps neither and go to the hospital to deliver their baby, they know all their options when making their choice.
“People always ask me where is the best place to have a baby,” she said. “I always say it’s different for everyone, but it should be wherever the family feels most comfortable.”