by Jason P. Smith
St. Anthony Hospitals of Denver offer a helpful, rewarding and comforting element to expectant mothers and their families through the Doula Program, the only national program that provides Spanish-speaking doulas in the hospital who are trained birth assistants to women in labor and delivery. Those who serve as Doulas are certified, well-trained, bilingual women, working as a bridge between the mother and the medical team.
By serving as a communicator, coach and comforter, Doulas help alleviate much of the stress and perceived danger that promotes emotional and physiological complications that may be associated with child birth.
The name of the program is derived from the Greek word "doulas," which means "women in service of another." Since its inception in January 1999, the program has grown in both patients and those who serve as Doulas to expectant mothers. When the program began there was only one doula who worked many hours to try and get the program up and running.
Today, there currently are 17 doulas working in the St. Anthony program. The training process for those who work in this program requires an observation period and getting professionally trained for the position.
"The observing makes all the difference," said Lisa Saldaña, who has been a doula for six years and with the St. Anthony program for three years. "It gives both us and the person thinking about becoming a doula a chance to make further decisions. It’s not always happy – you have to be strong enough to support the family and those around you."
The efforts have proved quite effective over the years. Through the collaborative efforts of Clinica Campesina and the Family Medical Clinics, the Doula Program has served 1,300 women during the delivery of their babies. The program has a strong impact on the success of the delivery as well. National data indicates that the presence of a doula reduces painkiller use by one-third for mothers, decreases the cesarean rates by about one-half and reduces the average length of labor by 45 minutes.
It is speculated that these medical outcomes result when anxiety is reduced and women feel safe, calm and supported during labor. These emotional states positively alter plasma hormones, favoring shorter labor and better fetal heart rates.
"People are genuinely grateful for what we do," Saldaña said. "You get immediate praise, and I enjoy helping the fathers – many have not had the opportunity to be in the labor room before.
"Most of them act like tough guys, but their worried about their wives – one of our roles also is to reassure the fathers and the family members."
Saldaña said she thinks it really makes a difference having the fathers present during the labor and delivery process. "Men get to see what the women go through, and I think this helps a great deal with the bonding and nurturing," she said. "I think it’s more bonding for the marriage as well."
There also is a strong bond that forms between the doulas and the medical staff. "I think we’re very much appreciated," Saldaña said. "It’s nice to have residents sometimes look to us for advice, and by helping relieve the tension the mother is more relaxed, which makes it easier on everyone."
The program, which set out with a goal to observe 650 deliveries this past year, exceeded its goal, but according to Carole Zook, Family Education Coordinator and Coordinator of St. Anthony’s Doula program, it would not have mattered if they fell short of their goal because they did a good job regardless.
The Doula Program at St. Anthony’s is a service that works well with the poor and disadvantaged, focusing on making the experience of childbirth a comfortable and pleasant one.
Mothers who have gone through the process of childbirth with a doula from St. Anthony’s said it was an important element in helping to explain their pain; understanding what is happening and helping to eliminate their fear of doctors and hospitals.
Saldaña said that through her work with St. Anthony’s she has seen many patients and husbands who have been scared during the process of childbirth, but were comforted once she was able to explain the situation and let them know that what was happening was normal.
"There’s always the stereotype of Latino men being kind of tough men," Saldaña said. "I’ve seen so many Latino men cry as they get wrapped up in all the emotion of the childbirth – it may be the only time I’ll see them cry," she added with a smile.
"It is an exhausting job, but good exhausting," Saldaña said. "It is both an emotional job and a physical job, so it can be pretty hard at times – but it’s very rewarding."