Doulas support mothers through journeys of birth, loss and grief

3 Gems Birth Services Team L-R: Cat Halek, Alexis Thompson, Ni’Chelle Lawson, Courtney West, Lisa Pineda and Kisha Wilkinson

By LaShante Keys, Empath Health Community Partnership Specialist

We always wish for healthy pregnancy, birthing and care experiences for all women. Sadly, we have seen many news stories that black women face higher risks and rates of pregnancy complications, dying in childbirth and deaths of infants.

One essential community support to address these issues are doulas, or “women’s servants” in Greek. Doulas are specially trained to assist women during labor and births of babies. They provide physical, emotional and advocacy support to help expecting mothers experience the best possible comfort.

Support for women during birth and early motherhood

African-American women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate about three times higher than those of white women, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May.

A group helping to support expecting and new black mothers is 3 Gems Birth Services in St. Petersburg. They provide a breastfeeding clinic, dietary and cooking information, sex education, a photographer and a professional massage therapist. They aim to help mothers and babies live healthy.

Courtney Nicole West is a St. Petersburg native, mother of two, nurse, doula and 3 Gems owner. Helping support other women of color in her community is a labor of love.

“It’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a big issue how the mortality rate is so different for women of color in our society. I started doing this work after I gave birth to my second child. I had severe postpartum depression. I realized that in St. Pete there was no real support for women to come together and talk about what this is like. I got a group of women together to talk about how they feel during pregnancy and the social issues that affect women of color. I started doing a mom’s group,” West shared.

Communication and understanding are key for better care experiences.

“Women are at the most vulnerable state in life giving birth. We (black women) feel pain the same as everyone else. We have the right to know about our care. Our words and opinions matter. Everyone deserves to be loved, cared for and educated, no matter where they live,” she noted.

West serves as a full-spectrum doula assisting women in many circumstances.

“I work with marginalized people in maternal toxic zones. We help everybody. I assist with birth, postpartum, abortion or whatever process the women are in. I’ve assisted with 27 births and had the honor of working with a well-known midwife,” West explained.

She nurtures and empowers women, as well as talks with medical staff to help ensure the women’s wishes are met.

“I’ve had the pleasure of doing a lot of births at Bayfront Baby Place in St. Pete. When I get the opportunity to work with doctors, I say we are here to assist them in their care. My experiences with labor and delivery staff, especially night staff, are amazing. They have great nurses. One mom listened to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” because they knew she needed it. Women have the right to stand, sway and be loved during this very important process in their lives. When a baby comes into this world with love and joy, it makes a world of difference,” she expressed.

Her future goals are to train to become a midwife and eventually open a first black birthing center in St. Petersburg.

“I do it for my daughters. All of this is for them and their friends. It has been a very cool journey,” she said.

Support for women facing pregnancy and infant loss

The Empath Health perinatal loss program offers specialized support for women experiencing a pregnancy loss, the death of a stillborn baby or the death of a baby shortly after birth.

Our doula volunteers provide emotional and advocacy support during labor and birth, as well as help mothers and families create footprint/handprint molds or photos of their babies as memorial keepsakes. Other volunteers make special outfits and caps for the babies to wear.

Our social workers, nurses, spiritual care coordinators and other team members may assist mothers and families with birth planning, final arrangements, grief counseling and planning for living babies to go into our Suncoast Hospice program.

This support was the first of its kind in this area. Services are provided at St. Petersburg General Hospital and newly-added at Morton Plant Hospital and Mease Countryside Hospital.

“The greatest thing we do is provide acknowledgment of the pregnancy and the birth. When we started this program in 2004 nobody ever did that. And we create an opportunity for the family to mourn their loss in whatever ways they want and need. I am really proud of this program,” explained Stacy Orloff, Empath Health’s vice president of innovation and community health.

Pregnancy losses are honored in a special way.

“We have an early-loss, miscarry-at-home program for second trimester losses. I’ve placed miscarry kits in medical offices around the county. The babies’ remains can be collected in containers, placed in small wooden boxes with pretty satchels made by volunteers, taken to a crematory at no charge and honored in a memorial service there,” noted Vicki “Pepper” Haywood, the senior staff nurse/care team manager for Empath Health’s pediatric program.

The doula volunteers bring compassion and comfort.

“Our doula volunteers are birthing companions supporting mothers and families. They are passionate about it. The nurses at the hospitals are so grateful for their presence with patients experiencing these losses. The families are so incredibly thankful to have this support and the memory making,” Haywood added.

Thanks to all who help support our community. Anyone who needs perinatal loss or grief counseling services can call us at (727) 523-3451. Anyone who wants to become a doula volunteer can call us at (727) 523-3440. A medical background is not required for volunteering.

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