Tales From A Birthing Doula

Samantha Shih

As many pre-health students are painfully aware, gleaning clinical experience-- and as much of it as possible-- before embarking on the long road to graduate school is extremely important. Not only is it necessary to double and triple check that this is the right career path, but there is a serious gap between the organic chemistry synthesis problems we practice and the actual direct application of medicine for living, breathing human patients. It is this complex merger of history, anthropology, and sociology that impacts the way in which doctors, midwives, and nurses provide care just as significantly as scientific or technological advances do.


During my spring semester of 2018, a fellow Barnard student introduced me to a volunteer opportunity that immediately and drastically caught my attention. She trained to be a doula through an organization on Long Island that operates out of the labor and delivery unit at NYU Winthrop. One formal definition of a doula, from the DONA International home page, is “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to a mother before, during, and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.” In my own words, I explain to the women I meet in the hospital that “doulas are here to mother the mother”. There is an entire team of medically trained professionals that are here to monitor every clinical aspect of mom and baby. A doula connects the gap between the clinical experience and the emotional experience.


Upon showing up to a shift at the hospital, I never know what I am going to get. One fateful afternoon, I checked the patient monitor to see the stats: dilation, effacement, anesthesia. By determining how far along these women were in labor, I scoped out the specific patients to whom I wanted to introduce myself. After checking in with the charge nurse, she asked me quickly and nonchalantly if I spoke Spanish. Sheepishly, I said yes. I had been learning Spanish since I was 11 years old, but only in the context of a classroom with other non-native speakers. She probably only wanted my help briefly to translate a few words to a patient. I could never anticipate what would happen next.


Before I knew it, I was walking into a mother’s room politely introducing myself in Spanish, with the pseudo-expectation that she would stop my stammering by her own interjection in English. I quickly realized that this woman spoke not one word of English. For the first hour, I timidly tried asking different questions about her older daughter, her time in the United States, and even her home life. Her contractions were a punctuation in our shy, yet heartfelt small talk. Every single time that a nurse changed the rate of her I.V. drip, or a resident did a pelvic exam, I grappled to explain with concision and clarity what they were doing and why they were doing it. I was forced to project a level of confidence and stability in a situation where I felt everything but.


I sweat for this woman to a degree that all healthcare providers must for their patients. I contorted my body, grappled to speak a different language, and exposed my heart as just an essential healing tool as my hands or my head. Medicine is not calculating binding energy for different nuclides with lightning-fast efficiency to 9 significant figures. Medicine is not drawing the correct Gaussian surface in order to take advantage of the direction of the electric field. And medicine is definitely not memorizing all of the minutiae of every step of Friedel-Crafts Acylation.