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In the hands of a doula

By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2009

BUCKDEN, England — Beth Lukawski has spent months preparing to give birth without her husband, though the idea hasn’t gotten any easier to bear over time.

"I think I’m in denial that this is going to happen," said Lukawski, 35, an Air Force spouse who is weeks away from delivering her second child while her husband, Capt. Michael Lukawski, is deployed to Afghanistan. "As it gets closer, I’m more nervous."

Along with raising their 7-year-old daughter on her own for the past few months, Lukawski was also diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes a few months ago, which makes her pregnancy "high risk." The combination has left Lukawski in need of some help.

Enter Caryn Volcheck, a fellow Air Force wife who is trained as a doula.

Derived from the Greek word for a "woman of service," doulas provide emotional, physical and informational support for women before, during and after childbirth. From massages during labor to help with breast-feeding afterward, doulas offer a range of nonclinical services.

"We’re not advocates, we help empower and support women during childbirth," said Volcheck, who delivered her last child with the help of a doula and her husband.

"It was wonderful. I knew she was totally 100 percent committed to me and the birth, and that she wasn’t going to leave and there wasn’t going to be a shift change," Volcheck said. "I knew she had my back. And she knew I didn’t want drugs and helped me stick to that plan. It also took some of the pressure off my husband so he could do things like go to the bathroom without feeling guilty."

Doulas typically develop a birthing plan with expectant mothers to gauge the little details that they can help control.

Volcheck, a 39-year-old mother of seven, has been helping Lukawski prepare for the upcoming birth and will be with her every step of the way on the big day.

"I want her experience to guide me," said Lukawski, who had never heard of a doula before meeting Volcheck last fall.

Lukawski has one special request: she wants her newborn to be washed of the amniotic fluid and blood before she is placed on her breast.

"It’s my job to say ‘Let’s clean up the baby.’ If I know something is important to her, I’m going to do my best to make it happen," said Volcheck, who spent a few hours with Lukawski developing a birthing plan. During the session, Volcheck also gave Lukawski an inflatable exercise ball and showed her some movements to help stay comfortable and reposition the baby, who is now in the breech position.

Lukawski was referred to a British hospital because of the complication with her diabetes. It’s just another atypical circumstance that has added to the anxiety of delivering without her husband by her side.

Lukawski said she is relying on Volcheck’s "calming presence" to help get her get through it. Medical conditions prohibit her own mother from coming to England to assist her, and though she considered going back to the U.S. to give birth she didn’t want to upset her daughter’s schedule, already thrown out of whack with her father away.

With two wars and a variety of missions that require troops to leave their families for extended periods, Lukawski’s predicament is not uncommon in military communities around the world.

In fact it’s exactly what’s driving Volcheck to host a doula workshop in July. Though the process to become a certified doula takes a few years, women — and even men — can undergo the training and begin assisting with labor and delivery immediately.

"It’s frustrating to know that these poor women went through this without someone," said Volcheck, who has assisted with three births as an official doula and eight others before she became certified.

Volcheck is also affiliated with Operation Special Delivery, a program geared for enlisted families that provides doulas for expectant mothers whose husbands are deployed.

"When you’re overseas that comfort is really needed when you’re giving birth, especially being away from family and your security net," said Angela Torres, a doula based at Heidelberg, Germany. "And many mothers are so young that having a doula really helps alleviate some of the fear they have going it to it."

Dr. (Maj.) Ngozi Wexler, an ob-gyn, at the hospital at RAF Lakenheath, England, said doulas are helpful during delivery, particularly in cases where husbands are absent.

"It’s always a positive thing to have as much support as you can," said Wexler. "Doulas do a great job of adding to what nurses provide medically."


Doula Caryn Volcheck (left) demonstrates positions on an exercise ball for expectant mom Beth Lukawski. The moves are geared for comfort and to help reposition the baby, which is now in the breech position.
CHARLIE REED / S&S

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