A growing number of American women are choosing midwives to support them through their pregnancy and childbirth. For Gerri Ryan, it’s an exciting trend and one that aims to improve fetal outcomes, as well as the experience of childbirth for many women.Gerri is Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Nizhoni Institute of Midwifery in San Diego. Nizhoni is a Navajo word which means “The Beauty Way,” or living in balance with the world. “As midwives and students, we seek that balance as we honor both our valued birthing traditions and contemporary midwifery and medical knowledge,” the school’s website says.
“I’m proud to know that, as a midwife, I’ve had a positive impact on the families I’ve worked with.”
Gerri helped start the school, using a small house as the classroom and her own textbooks, more than 13 years ago. Now, Nizhoni is one of just nine accredited, direct-entry midwifery programs in the U.S. The institute’s three-year program takes a multidisciplinary approach, with students learning from experienced midwives, nurses and physicians, as well as a range of specialists — from lactation consultants to herbalists. Concurrent with the academic program, students must also complete 2,000 hours of supervised clinical practice, sit for the national exam and apply to the Medical Board of California for their license.
In the spirit of celebrating mothers everywhere, we spoke with Gerri about the need Nizhoni is filling, her goals for the school’s future and what is most rewarding about being a midwife.
What prompted the founding of Nizhoni?
Gerri: Marla Hicks, Nizhoni’s program manager, started the program in her home in 2003, and I came in a year later to help teach. We started the program because we saw a gap in the current healthcare system and a need to provide evidence-based care to women in settings where they feel comfortable asking questions.
What impact do you think Nizhoni has made on the profession and the birth experience?
Gerri: Our approach to birth is that it’s a normal life event. In fact, 95% of all women typically have a normal, healthy birth experience. However, here in the U.S. it’s mostly viewed as a medical event; and when we approach it that way, there’s a lot of fear brought into birth. That can ultimately result in procedures that can make birth more high risk. We don’t feel that any one kind of birth is better than another, and our midwives are trained to know when appropriate interventions are needed and if hospital transfer is necessary. What we want to do is partner with doctors, nurses and medical personnel so that regardless of where women birth, the experience is consistently empowering to them.
We’ve graduated 25 midwives and currently have 46 midwifery students currently enrolled. The work of our midwives not only impacts the local community by providing more birthing options for women, but it also impacts the other families around them. For instance, when families hear about a positive birth experience, they may educate themselves to understand their options, so it becomes a ripple effect that continues.
When you look back over your years at the helm of this organization, what makes you most proud?
Gerri: I’m proud to know that, as a midwife, I’ve had a positive impact on the families I’ve worked with. Midwifery is on an upward trajectory and I’m also proud to watch Nizhoni help expand and grow the field raising the standards of midwifery through education. I’m pleased with the variety of women who have come through our program. We’ve had a multitude of ethnicities and a range of ages, including midwives in their mid-to-late-50s who are embarking upon a new career.
Nizhoni is now focused on expanding into rural areas as well as buying a building to house the program. Can you talk about what’s driving these goals?
Gerri: As we grow, our goal is to find a place that can be our home so that we can focus our efforts on expanding our reach as an organization. One of Nizhoni’s goals is to create providers in geographically isolated regions, where they’re needed most. For example, Nizhoni’s Co-Founder, Marla, recently moved back to Utah and she saw how difficult it was for families in rural areas to access medical providers. When a woman goes into labor, the last thing she needs is to travel several hours by car before receiving care. To address this problem, we are interested in opening micro campuses in that region where we would train two to five students at a time.
What do you love most about being a midwife?
Gerri: To me, it’s about what the family experiences during the pregnancy and birth and that the mother walks away empowered. She can say ‘I owned that birth,’ she knows that she’s strong and capable woman and that she’ll be a good mom. That’s what I love.
Photo provided by Vuefinder Photography.
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