As she walked through the main entrance of Mt. Sinai Hospital on a recent Friday, Rosalba Felix greeted a woman being wheeled out of the hospital, sheltering a newborn wrapped in pink fleece.
“Hasta luego,” Felix said to the family, squeezing the new mother’s hand.
The young mother, in her 20s, plans to keep her child. Nothing unusual there, except that two nights earlier she was denying she was pregnant even while she was in delivery. That night, the hospital called Felix to serve as a “doula” for the woman. It was an emergency for the mother, who had hidden the pregnancy throughout her term and had labored at home since her water broke two days earlier.
Felix spent the night at the mother’s side, massaging, applying cold compresses and encouraging.
“I told her ‘You’re doing a good job. This is real; this is happening, even though you’re still in denial,'” said Felix, a 32-year-old, mother.
Doulas don’t provide medical care, but emotional support and advice for mothers before, during and after childbirth. The term comes from ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves.” As a community doula, Felix provides the service at no cost to patients of Access Community Health Network, the city’s largest private primary health care provider, which Mt. Sinai Hospital on the West Side is a member.
The 20-year-old mother’s story, while extreme, has common elements with nearly all of the low-income or otherwise at-risk pregnant women Felix serves at Mt. Sinai. Many of the women have little contact with the baby’s father or are victims of abuse. Many seek prenatal care late in the pregnancy. A large percentage is teens, and nearly all are ethnic minorities.
Felix subscribes to the often-cited purpose of a doula: mothering the mother.
“If the mother feels like they are in a state of security, she can bond with the baby. You want to mother the mom-to-be and give her nurture so she can nurture her baby,” Felix said.
Charles Lampley, a medical doctor and chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Mt Sinai Hospital, works with Felix and other community doulas in prenatal classes and during births. Doulas, he insisted, empower the patient by providing them with education about nutrition and the birth process.
“The most important factor in improving our health and our outcomes is patient understanding and being actively involved in what they can do to look out for their health and their baby’s,” he said.
Felix isn’t only a doula, but a woman who assists other women in many ways. She’s also a certified lactation consultant, grief counselor and a cosmetologist who helps cancer patients look their best. She started on the path at the age of 19 when she became pregnant and was assigned a midwife through a healthcare clinic. After she had her son, the first of two children, she got involved at the clinic, taking doula training and helping pregnant women.
“Every time I would see a baby being born I would get so excited,” Felix said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Tracy Wilhoite also serves as a community doula at Mt. Sinai while raising her eight children.
“She believes in birth,” Wilhoite said of Felix. “She believes in the process of birth-that a woman’s body is capable of delivering her baby. And at some point in the process of giving birth, we fail to believe that.”
Doulas have been criticized in recent years by some health experts for pushing natural childbirth. While Felix does admit she believes natural is better, she said she supports women in any decision they make. Lampley maintains he hasn’t seen doulas pressure patients into natural childbirth.
“I’ve found them to be quite sensitive and responsible as to what’s in the best interest of the patient and what the patient wants to do,” he said. If it’s safe and the patient wants to do it, then it’s appropriate to do natural childbirth.”
After attending more than 200 births in her career, Felix said she’s getting additional training to become a midwife, explaining how she loves to be in the delivery room to share a woman’s experience. Felix also smiles when she talks about running into the women years later on the street or at the hospital having another baby.
“They come back to you. They bring you their children,” she said. “They call you sister or friend and consider you part of the family.”