Midwife-led birthing center bridges Memphis' health disparity gap

Memphis' first birthing center will provide pre and post-natal care, midwife-led birthing, mental health services, abortion services, care for sexually transmitted diseases and ongoing reproductive health education with an emphasis on serving pregnant women in impoverished communities. 
In 2017, childbirth is rarely thought of as life threatening like it were decades ago. Yet, for women in the south, and especially for women of color and low-income families, this natural process can be fatal.
 
According to CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, the current infant mortality rate is 10.6 deaths per 1,000 live births and the infant mortality rate among infants born to African-American women is almost triple that of babies born to Caucasian women.
 
In response to these drastic numbers, CHOICES plans to open the first comprehensive non-profit reproductive healthcare center in the nation.
 
Slated to open in the fall of 2018 at 1203 Poplar Ave., the center will be the first nonprofit health care provider in the county to offer birth services and abortions along with mental health care all under one roof. Once a former medical facility, the one-story building will embody a model of care new to Memphis and the nation.
 “I think having a birthing center in Memphis, a city that has some of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies among women of color, particularly black women and girls, is really important," 
“I think having a birthing center in Memphis, a city that has some of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies among women of color, particularly black women and girls, is really important," 

Katy Leopard, CHOICES director of community partnerships, said that the CHOICES mission to provide “excellent, evidence-based medical care surrounding reproductive choices” will remain the same while its second location will include services to help pregnant women access holistic choices when it comes to their birth decisions.
 
“As we started researching the idea of a CHOICES comprehensive center that includes a birth center, we realized how much disparity around birth justice there was, and we realized how little control is given to women over when, how and where they give birth. We saw how few options women have, especially here in Memphis,” Leopard said.
 
The CHOICES comprehensive center will be located where infant mortality rates are among some of the highest in the city. The center’s central location in the Memphis Medical District will bring affordable choices to expecting mothers who are looking for a more natural birthing process, Leopard hopes.
 
She said the midwifery model has been shown to decrease infant and maternal mortality rates because it cares for mother and baby through the entire journey of pregnancy from conception to post-birth.
 
Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of reproductive justice organization SisterReach, said that since legislators decided not to expand Medicaid, low-income families, and especially expecting mothers, have suffered in Memphis.
 
“I think families are witnessing the effects of the state not expanding Medicaid. This is something in the long run that will affect low-income families and people of color most of all,” Scott said.
 
“I think Tennessee has set the tone for how we treat women, indicating that their lives should be legislated and not supported, especially when it comes down to their behavioral and mental health.”

Holly Calvasina (L) and Katy LeopardShe added she is excited to see the possibilities of the CHOICES comprehensive center, particularly within its capacity to offer more holistic choices to pregnant women and girls.
 
“I think having a birthing center in Memphis, a city that has some of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies among women of color, particularly black women and girls, is really important," Scott said. "Having a space for women and girls where they can go get the full range of reproductive healthcare and treat all their needs is important, especially around birth.”
 
Leopard added that midwife-led births are typically less expensive than hospital births. The center will have three birthing suites that will be built like one-bedroom apartments with room for families. Each suite will open up to a relaxing outdoors space.
 
“It is a model of care that is very patient-centered and patient-driven and that is the way we practice what we do today,” Leopard said of the midwifery model of care.
 
The comprehensive center will include large public space in the front of the building that CHOICES hopes will provide a safe space where parents can feel comfortable gathering and meeting other parents.
 
CHOICES plans to use the space to show documentaries, host art galleries and other public events that will bring Memphis together.
 
Holly Calvasina, CHOICES community partner assistant, commented that the center will be designed to help women and families feel relaxed and at ease, as if they are at home.
 
“Labor is going to be intense pain not matter what, but in a midwife-led birth, pain management is viewed more holistically,” she said.

“It is easier to imagine going through two days of labor when you are allowed to get in whatever position you want to be in, wear something you feel comfortable in and be in a space that makes you feel comfortable.”

The staff of CHOICES at the existing facility at 1726 Poplar Ave.
 
Leopard added that the comprehensive center will be ambulatory center certified and its proximate location to Regional One Health ensures that the team is ready to transfer patients to the hospital if needed or if a patient changes their mind mid-delivery.
 
Checking on mom and baby after birth is also an important part of the midwife-led birth. Leopard explained that offering mental health services and education about post-partum depression, parenting and breast-feeding will be a large part of the center’s work.
 
Prenatal care, something women in impoverished communities may not have easy access to, is another aspect that is built into the midwifery model of care. The comprehensive center, Leopard said, will make prenatal care one of its top priorities and will provide prenatal education and care to the surrounding communities and the women it will serves.
 
Leopard said Jodilyn Owen, CHOICES midwife and clinical services consultant, has made her priority to provide accessible prenatal outreach to Memphis communities.
 
The comprehensive center will include devoted space to training midwives in the area. Leopard noted that midwife Owen wants to specifically reach out to people living in the zip codes surrounding the planned center.
 
“Midwifery historically has a long tradition of being an important and respected profession in African-American culture and we want to support that and foster it,” Leopard said.
 
In the bigger scope of reproductive choices in Memphis, Leopard and Calvasina hope the comprehensive center will provide all Memphians an array of options to empower them in their reproductive lives, whether that may be to have a midwife-led birth, receive judgment-free contraception, have an abortion or receive prenatal care.
 
This year, CHOICES plans to present at three national conventions as a leader in of this type of holistic reproductive model. CHOICES wants to see this model of full spectrum reproductive care reach beyond Memphis and affect how people think about reproductive rights and access on a national scale.
 
Calvasina said, “We have always considered ourselves leaders in reproductive healthcare, and we are excited to be a pioneer in this holistic offering of reproductive services.”

Read more articles by Rachel Warren.

Rachel Warren is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in RSVP Magazine and Focus Magazine in Memphis. She is a sales associate at the Peddler Bike Shop. Rachel likes riding bikes, playing roller derby, watching scary movies and writing about Memphis. 
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