Denver Health Medical Center delivers one-third of all babies in Denver, and while some births go beautifully according to plan, many of them aren’t as smooth. Mothers might be refugees or immigrants who don’t speak English; they might be incarcerated or addicted to drugs; they might be teenagers without anyone to support them; or they might, tragically, experience a stillbirth. In addition to the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who help throughout the pre- and post-natal experience, doulas are perhaps some of the most unsung heroes.
“The sheer presence of having somebody who is continuously there with you during labor can make such a difference,” says Phoebe Montgomery, a certified nurse midwife and nurse practitioner with Denver Health. “Sometimes, you need someone to lock eyes with occasionally, whose presence says, ‘I see you. I'm here with you. I'm your witness.’”
Doulas, though they don’t have a formal medical education, are considered a vital part of the birthing experience as they are trained to help mothers and families through physical comfort measures, emotional support and guidance. Their expertise — ranging from massage techniques to position changes during labor without an epidural — is sought from pregnancy to childbirth to postpartum. Phoebe launched the Denver Health Doula Program in 2016, a year after she started working for the hospital. A former doula herself, she saw a desperate need for the many services doulas can provide. In the past seven years, the number of doulas at Denver Health has grown from 5 to 55. Each one is a volunteer, someone who is immensely passionate about the practice.
“This role as a labor support person has been around since the beginning of time,” Phoebe says. “Animals do it. There’s an organization here in Denver called Elephant Circle, and they chose that name because when elephants give birth, there's a circle of other female elephants around the birthing elephant to protect her. It’s hugely innate.”
Studies like those conducted through Cochrane, an independent, global organization dedicated to producing evidence about the effectiveness of healthcare, have shown that a doula’s presence can offer immense benefits — decreased complications, labor interventions, severe infection rates, neonatal intensive care unit stays and postpartum depression, as well as increased breastfeeding rates. Ideally, Phoebe says, a doula will meet patients prenatally to get to know them, their families and their preferences. However, because of the diverse population that Denver Health serves, that isn’t always possible, so Phoebe and her team will identify high-risk patients who immediately need what a doula can give.
“There was a patient who came in and had no prenatal care,” Phoebe recalls. “She didn’t speak English, and she was a teenager. Her pregnancy was a product of sexual assault, and she didn’t tell her family. She was essentially alone. We were able to have a doula who spoke her language be in the room with her throughout her labor. Experiences like that are why I started this program.”
Many doulas at Denver Health volunteer because of their passion for the program, then go on to pursue long-term goals in the medical field, supported and encouraged by the hospital’s staff. One of the original five doulas volunteered for several years before attending Yale University then returning to the hospital as a midwife. Claudia Davis, a doula with Denver Health since 2019, says the program is hugely important to her.
“We want everyone to be able to have access to someone they can trust to guide them through the process of birth,” she says. “I would love to see a doula program in every hospital that makes birth support services available to all.”
Interested in learning more about the Denver Health Doula Program? Email email@example.com