September 1, 2016
By Nijah Glenn & Bette McDevitt

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Mural at The Midwife Center. Photo credit: Nijah Glenn

On a recent afternoon, we visited a long time friend of the Merton Center. Twenty years ago, Christine Haas was the development coordinator/ director of the Thomas Merton Center. She left to give birth to her first child at The Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health, the first and only licensed, free-standing birth center in Pittsburgh. Now, she is the co-director of another “TMC”: The Midwife Center on Penn Avenue. Their highly visible mural of a joyful woman on the outside wall caught our eyes as we reached the building. The Center provides women-centered health care during pregnancy and birth, and well-woman care to all women, puberty through menopause.

While the Center does have certain medications on hand, “most women who choose The Midwife Center are planning for a birth with limited or no medical interventions, unless they are needed.” Choosing the Midwife Center allows the mother to be involved, along with her family members and friends, in planning for the birth. At her first meeting, an hour long intake appointment with the certified nurse midwife, she will devise a birth plan, record her personal and family history, and have a full physical exam. She will set up further appointments and be offered opportunities to learn about breast feeding, prenatal care, and how to secure financial help if needed. She will see, as we did, the three beautiful birthing suites in the Center. The suites are decorated in soft colors, with a comfortable bed, a cradle, rocking chair and a Jacuzzi. All of the suites were decorated by the women who work there; the entire experience is much different from the more formal exam rooms and paper robes that most women are presented with in hospitals.

On future visits, her appointments will be with one of the seven certified nurse midwives. Patients are also free to call the Center at any time for consultation. When the birth draws near, she will come to the Center with the family member she has chosen and give birth in a natural way, with the support of a midwife and nurse. If complications arise, women can choose to have an epidural and other interventions at the hospital, where TMC midwives have admitting privileges and collaboration agreements with physicians.

This year, an estimated 430 women will give birth at the Midwife Center. In addition to births, The Midwife Center also provides standard women’s healthcare. This year alone, around 1500 women will receive their annual gynecological exam at the Center, as well as other gynecological services including STI testing, birth control and family planning.

Christine, and Ann McCarthy, the clinical director, are pleased with the response to their “walk-in Fridays” when women can come in without an appointment. To appeal to diverse audiences, the first Friday of the month is especially directed towards Spanish-speaking women at the Center, “Our Latino population is growing, rapidly, and we need to provide more services for them,” said Christine. While resources for women who speak English as a second language are still developing in much of the region, “Walk-in Fridays… seeks to break down barriers between cultures. It encourages more trust between communities which are often ignored and medical professionals.”   As part of the outreach, all  employees are trained in cultural competency.

The Center broke ground in July for an expansion, using the vacant lot beside it to become the largest freestanding birth center in the country. The location is in a high-traffic part of the city and is accessible by public transit. The expansion will not only provide more space, but will also allow the Center to provide more services.

“We have always wanted to reach out to women in communities that are vulnerable to poor health outcomes,” said Christine. “A lot of the spaces in the new building will be for that kind of support. We are part of a federal program called Strong Start, for women who are in Medicaid, to provide more support during pregnancy and postpartum and to help them sign up for WIC, locate food banks, and engage in other health programs such as smoking cessation. This program has shown much better outcomes than national averages.

“Better outcomes mean better health in the future,” said Christine. “More healthcare dollars are spent on pregnancy, especially because of C-sections and premature births, which lead to higher health costs down the road. With a little more investment, we can save money and have better outcomes. American outcomes for birth are some of the worst in the industrialized world.”

Before finishing our visit, Christine told us of a new connection established with the Merton Center: Thrifty is going to start providing vouchers to Midwife Center patients in need of maternity and baby clothes. Thrifty is always seeking more donations, so now you know where to take those outgrown baby items.

Bette McDevitt and Nijah Glenn are members of the Editorial Collective.