From 2009 – 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves honored the work of women’s health advocates worldwide by asking readers to nominate their favorite women’s health hero. View all nominees by year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Entrant: Danielle Roderick
Nominee: Pat Neilsen, Doula, Childbirth Educator
Pat Nielsen is an inspiration. To me, she demonstrates both the high quality of care and empowerment that is available in the reproductive health community, and the influence that one voice can have in changing an entire community’s awareness.
I met Pat as part of a doula meeting, before I knew what a doula was. I was writing an article about doulas and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found a community of intelligent and engaged advocates for women’s health.
Pat was a childbirth educator at one of two hospitals in Athens, Georgia. The climate towards maternal health care in Georgia is quite conservative, and Athens easily met those standards. I attended the childbirth education classes taught by other staff of the hospital, and was surprised by how few options they offered patients. Instead of a class on the birth process, it seemed to be a class in how to be an ideal patient for the hospital staff to deal with efficiently.
And then I went to Pat’s class at the hospital.
Along with the standard classes, she offered an extra supplement called “Special Delivery” that was about pain management and preparing for the overall birth process. Everything that was part of her supplemental class seemed to be vital information that should have been the core of the standard classes. She encouraged parents, made them excited about their labors, and prepared them for the work ahead (epidural or none). Her passion for healthy mamas was contagious, and everybody in the room seemed to pick up more confidence about their labors.
She also organized an infant loss support group, and is one of the best doulas I have ever met. In my own training as a doula, I often heard women hope or lament that they could secure Pat for their labors because of her calm, nurturing demeanor, and her immense knowledge. She did other wonders, like connecting women who need support with volunteer doulas, and bridging the gap between the hospital and doula communities in Athens, encouraging increased understanding between both groups (removing stereotypes that got in the way of working together to make better birth experiences for parents).
Besides all of this great work, a year ago, Pat left her position at the hospital to start her own birth and parenting resource center in Athens, called Full Bloom Pregnancy and Early Parenting Center. She has created a place that foremost offers support to new parents. She offers information, childbirth education classes, support circles, doula introductions, breastfeeding workshops, cloth diapering information, and all sorts of things that never had a place to be discussed in Athens before.
When I first started working as a doula in Athens, I often had to explain what a doula was, why parents might want to employ one. When describing several useful aspects to consider during pregnancy and childbirth, I often felt like I was working very hard to normalize the idea of things like birthing balls, pre-natal yoga, and the emotional components of holistic care. Parents assumed that I was coming from “New Age” or “Granola” agenda, and that doulas were either a luxury of the bourgeoisie, or a hippie thing.
Now when I speak to parents in the area, they are engaged and asking the questions. They seek out health care providers that offer the Centering model of prenatal care. They challenge their doctors and switch providers when needed (which was very rare a few years ago), and I am sure that these parents are changing the maternity culture in the hospitals of Athens. I think a lot of this is due to Pat, and her relentless energy. She has made birthing options part of standard conversation in Athens.
When somebody announces a pregnancy, their friends and neighbors recommend Full Bloom as a necessary resource. She is building a community, and this community is building change. She took a huge risk in leaving her job to start Full Bloom, and I admire her greatly. To me, she is an example that change and activism can have all kinds of shapes, and that such work can have a gentle and powerful benefit on a community and its generations.