November 4, 2005

Helping Women Breathe

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

When a mother thinks of her newborn, thoughts of happiness, hope and honor come to mind. But without a doubt, the piercing pain of labor remains instilled in a mother’s mind long after the birth of her child.

Over the centuries, different art forms have represented this painful journey as paintings and sculptures depict the mixed emotions that arise during labor. And even in those century old paintings, one can see a third person in the picture. Not a father, but a woman guiding the soon to be mother into labor.

The latter has long been a part of the childbirth support process. And UCSD Medical Center is no stranger to this practice.


Doula, Leah Fitzgerald with a new family she assisted with.

For years, the center has offered doulas to laboring mothers. These are trained women who lend emotional support to women during labor. They comfort the mother, calm her during contractions, get pillows and blankets for her and can even call a doctor to explain something to the patient.

“Doulas can be better for a woman in labor than say their husband, sister or mother because it’s hard to see someone you love in so much pain,” says Jennifer Yeast from the UCSD Doula Program. “Also, relatives get so excited for the new addition to their family that at times they need support themselves.”

Yet there are those who don’t have the option of having a relative near their side. Over 70 percent of the patient this program serves are Latinas and because their spouse or family members are at times back in their country of origin, they have no support system here in the U.S.

Hence comes the important and often indispensable role of doulas.

Not to be confused with midwives, doulas are trained women who lend emotional support to women during labor. Whereas a midwife can make medical decisions pertaining to the pregnancy, doulas simply provide comfort to soon to be mothers by trying to put them at ease. The meaning of the word doula stems from Greek and is described as a “servant woman,” yet perhaps a more appropriate, current definition would be “supportive woman.”

At the UCSD Medical Center doulas receive nine hours of training before taking a tour of the center. When they complete their training, they take a mentor to monitor their performance. Once they feel comfortable with the entire process they are able to individually help a laboring mother.

Yet other challenges still remain.

“Right now we have 40 doulas but we could definitely use about 90,” says Yeast.

Few of those speak fluent Spanish and a almost none are Hispanic though. “The latter has presented a challenge in the past because of language barriers. Although Yeast says that doulas have knowledge of basic words such as respira, breathe, calma, calm and una mas, once more, she hopes the program can reach out more to the demographics they serve.

Mayri Sagady created the UCSD Doula Program after volunteering for two years without pay. She is the current director of UCSD’s Nurse Midwifery Division and founder of Hearts and Hands Program in the center.

Although the program hopes to attract more Hispanic doulas in the future, for now, members pride themselves with the programs great success and free services it offers.

An average of 350 mothers give birth at UCSD Medical Center every month, and from those, 35, about 10 percent ask for the free services of a doula.

The average price range for this service is around $600. But under this program, all one has to do is petition for a doula to aid them while in labor. Free of charge.

It’s ironic how expectant mothers barely meet their respective doulas when they walk into the delivery room. No prior interviews, no mutual conversations or knowledge of one another. The only factor needed is a woman in need of support and another woman willing to help.

For more information on becoming a doula at UCSD’s medical center, one can call 619-543-6269 .

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