Kalispell doula coaches mothers through childbirth

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Katie Christensen of Flathead Valley Doulas on Friday, Nov. 30. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Birth remains one of the most celebrated parts of life, but in the moments leading up to and following that first cry, some mothers find comfort in reaching for a skillful, helping hand.

As a trained doula, Katie Christensen, 29, of Kalispell remains on-call day and night, ready to be the hand they hold.

Christensen discovered a desire to take part in the miracle of birth when she witnessed the arrival of her nephew when she was 16 years old.

“Even though the mother’s in a lot of pain in that moment, I was really fascinated by the technical part of it,” Christensen said.

She came to realize, though, that the calling placed on her heart that day required more than a knowledge of medical terminology and a strong stomach.

At 18, Christensen attended a training course and began practicing as a doula, a support advocate trained to coach and comfort mothers through labor, birth and postpartum.

The word doula means “female servant,” and thus, a doula provides no medical care, but instead offers mental, emotional and physical support to help focus and calm mothers as they experience the stress and strain of labor.

“When I’m in the labor room, my eyes are on the mom 100 percent, because a doula is there from onset through the whole labor until after the baby is born,” Christensen said. “You’re very focused on the mom and you really don’t leave the room.”

The task of helping a mother through birth, however, takes more than knowing what to do and how to do it, Christensen said. It takes genuine care.

“Even though I came from a huge family, I was not a very ‘touchy-feely’ person,” Christensen said. “Even though I thought I wasn’t very good with calming people down, it turns out I’m really good at calming people down. I didn’t think that was one of my strong suits, but actually one of my strong suits is making people feel comfortable.”

After taking some time to explore other branches of the medical field, including work in an emergency room and in an assisted-living facility, Christensen returned to her first love and became a registered doula in her early 20s.

“I found out that I just had a really good knack for it,” she said. “Having patience, slowly going through and getting more education and going into these areas has made me more empathetic toward people. It’s made me not be afraid of how much people need to have somebody there for them.”

Empathy, she said, plays a crucial part in building relationships with expectant mothers in the months leading up to birth, as it allows them to become comfortable enough with her to trust her through one of the most intimate and difficult experiences of their life.

“Usually when I get [to the hospital], they’re starting to lose control because it’s a very intense, really intense feeling that’s going on,” she said. “A lot of emotions, a lot of pain.”

Upon arrival, Christensen takes a moment to observe and figure out where the mother is in her labor and what she needs before employing methods to calm and focus her attention and efforts.

She massages the mother, moves her into more beneficial positions, focuses her breathing and works to help relieve pain and panic.

“Keeping that focus gives her better control of her pain,” Christensen said. “The chances of epidurals go down. The chances of cesarean go down. Overall, it’s a lot more helpful experience.”

As a doula, she said she also tries to involve the father, allowing him to help and relieve some of the stress in the room.

“A lot of times they already see their wives or partners in pain, and they don’t know what to do,” Christensen said. “Having the doula there gives them the opportunity to enjoy more of the experience.”

As part of the team at Heart and Hands Midwifery and Women’s Health in Kalispell, Christensen works as part of a “labor team,” comprising a midwife, nurse and doula.

According to Christensen, contrary to some of the misconceptions she’s heard, midwives can perform the same level of care as an obstetrician, able to prescribe medications, perform ultrasounds and handle health-care needs throughout, after and outside of pregnancy.

“I think there are great doctors out there and there are great midwives out there,” Christensen said. “I don’t see them as one’s better than the other. They’re both good at what they do. It’s really up to preference.”

One benefit she’s found in her job, however, is the opportunity to care for the women on a level that goes deeper than the medical side.

“Women are just so strong and we know that they’re strong, so we feel as long as they’re loved and supported and are given the best care possible, then they’re going to thrive and they’re going to want to be the best that they can be,” she said.

The work does not come without its challenges, however, for the mother or the doula.

Some women experience loss, others disappointment, when the birth sometimes doesn’t go according to plan, ending in a transfer to a doctor more equipped to handle high-risk scenarios and, if needed, cesarean sections.

“God made us [women] very special because we deal with a lot,” she said. “There are women who don’t have a lot of problems, and then there are women who have every single problem and it’s so hard for them.”

Personally, Christensen said, one of the hardest parts of her job comes from never having experienced birth herself.

“I’m not married and I don’t have children, and yet I help babies be born, I’m help women who are expecting babies,” she said. “For me, that’s a little bittersweet because I’ve never had children, but I’m seeing all these babies being born.”

Still, she said, nothing compares to the joy that comes with each birth she witnesses.

“I cry every time, not because I’m sad but because I’m happy that I got to do it,” Christensen said. “It’s just the most amazing when the baby is completely out and you hear that cry for the first time. There’s nothing like it. I love it every single time. It doesn’t matter how many times I go and help with a birth. It’s special every time.”

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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