Barbara Brennan's Modern Midwives Deliver Personal and Professional Care, as Well as 650 Babies a Year

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Joanne Starr, 26, had already been in labor for two hours when she and her husband, Mike, arrived at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City at noon on Nov. 29, 1981. They were greeted by nurse-midwife Barbara Brennan, whose team had delivered their second child two and a half years earlier. During Joanne's labor, while she and Mike paced the halls, Barbara was never more than a few feet away, giving the couple privacy but frequently checking the baby's heartbeat and Joanne's contractions.

By 4 p.m. the contractions were coming every two minutes and were increasingly painful. Soon Joanne was barely able to stand. Barbara let her lie down occasionally, but made her get back on her feet right away. "This baby's head is very big," Brennan explained, "and standing will hasten the delivery." Glassy-eyed, Joanne complied, sometimes standing, sometimes squatting, but eventually she begged, "I don't know what to do anymore, Barbara. Can't you help me?" Finally ready to deliver, Joanne got into bed. With Mike at her side, sweat dripping from her brow, she pushed and breathed with Barbara's encouragement. This is what you've waited for," she said. "Only you can do it."

At 6:28 p.m. the mother did—and Nicole Catherine Brennan Starr joined the ranks of some 2,000 children whom Barbara has helped into the world. ("Brennan" is a family name—as well as a tribute to the midwife.)

The word "midwife" conjures up an image of an untrained grandmother assisting in backwoods births, but modern-day midwives like Barbara Brennan are demolishing that stereotype. In 1964 Brennan became the country's first nurse-midwife employed by a private voluntary hospital, Roosevelt. After 10 years of caring for predominantly low-income clinic patients, Brennan was appointed head of a new Midwifery Service. It made Roosevelt the first such hospital in the U.S. to offer midwife deliveries to private patients. Today, Brennan and her colleagues assist in some 650 births a year.

The popularity of midwifing is due in part to a feeling among some women that standard obstetrical care over-stresses technology and medication and dehumanizes the experience of giving birth. "The people who come to us would ordinarily go to a private obstetrician," says Brennan. "But they are looking for an alternative to the regular hospital routine of coming in, maybe being put to sleep or having a forceps or cesarean birth, then being separated from the baby and staying in the hospital for three or four days."

If everything proceeds normally, mothers-to-be in the Roosevelt program never see a doctor. Couples are allowed to stay together during the labor and birth. This takes place in either the hospital's birthing room, which is decorated with plants and curtains to give it a touch of home, or in one of six labor rooms. Women are not shaved and a routine delivery involves neither an enema nor an episiotomy. After birth the mothers may keep their babies with them, and many go home within 48 hours.

Brennan drew her staff of four from the country's 2,400 certified nurse-midwives, who now handle about one percent of all U.S. births. A midwifed birth at Roosevelt costs $1,712 (about half the usual cost of giving birth in New York City). That includes all prenatal visits and lab fees, delivery and two days in the hospital, plus a postnatal checkup.

Not all women who apply get into Roosevelt's midwife program—only those in good health and expecting a normal birth. Should an emergency arise, an obstetrician is always available. "What we provide," says Dr. Thomas Dillon, director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, "is a midwifery service with all its ambience but with the ability to deliver any obstetrical service within seconds."

Brennan has midwifing in her blood. Her great-aunt Kate was a lay practitioner at the turn of the century in South Amboy, N.J. That's where Barbara was born in 1938 (delivered by an M.D.). A year after nurse's training she enrolled in midwifery training at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, one of the country's 25 accredited programs. A year later she was hired by Roosevelt. Brennan, 43, is not married and has no children of her own. "But I feel like I've had 2,000," she says. "And if I were to have a baby, this is how I'd do it."

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