The CenteringPregnancy Program at La Clinica Women’s Health Center puts the focus on healthy babies.

Centered on birth

More than family ties influenced Karley Grandy's choice of partner at her monthly prenatal exams.

Grandy's niece, Sarah Rondeau, also is pregnant — her March due date just days apart from her aunt's. But whereas Grandy, 29, has given birth twice before, 24-year-old Rondeau is a first-time, expectant mother with more than a typical dose of fear and uncertainty.

"She is terrified right now," says Grandy, "so she just thinks she's gonna die."

An unconventional, group format for prenatal care at La Clinica did more than ease Rondeau's fears. In the two meetings Rondeau attended as Grandy's guest, she devised a birth plan, weighed options for delivery-room procedures and infant care, learned techniques to facilitate breast-feeding and drew strength from a half-dozen other women in the same stage of pregnancy.

"I never knew anything about a birth plan," says Rondeau. "If I learned a lot in two days, imagine what I would have learned through my whole pregnancy."

La Clinica convened its first CenteringPregnancy group in September for couples whose babies were due in March. Six more groups with about 50 patients have since formed at La Clinica's Women's Health Center in Medford. At the clinic's request, about 80 percent of obstetrics patients have chosen the program over typical prenatal care, says Linda Whitlow, maternal-child health coordinator. Barring scheduling conflicts, all those patients have continued with the format since it started, and most bring partners, family members or friends, she says.

A trademarked form of conducting medical appointments, CenteringPregnancy goes beyond standard, physical-health assessments to educate and support pregnant women and their families. The Connecticut-based, nonprofit organization aims to empower patients to choose health-promoting behaviors known to prevent premature birth. La Clinica is Southern Oregon's only approved site, according to www.centeringhealthcare.org, which lists midwifery clinics in Eugene, Salem and Portland as other sites.

Klamath Falls, where Rondeau lives, has limited prenatal services, says Grandy, a former resident now living in Medford. Rondeau says she wanted to attend a day-long parenting class in Klamath Falls but couldn't afford the fee. So a baby-shopping trip to Medford seemed the ideal opportunity to introduce her niece to Centering, says Grandy.

"It's just a unique experience."

The 10 meetings each start with patients using clinic equipment to record their own weight and blood pressure before joining the group. Snacking on fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese, patients sit in a circle and swap pregnancy stories. The two-hour format allows practitioners to perform routine checkups and still address a wide variety of patient concerns.

"In addition to all of that," says nurse-midwife Hillary Handelsman, "they get this time."

One by one, the women join Handelsman behind a folding screen for a standard prenatal exam while Annie Sporer, La Clinica maternal-child health manager, keeps the conversation rolling with talking points, such as "When I think about birth, I feel ... "

Patients write their responses on bits of paper, crumple them up and toss them into the circle's center, so Sporer can retrieve them and read each aloud and anonymously. Birth-related emotions range from "nervous" and "anxious" to "excited."

"It probably wouldn't be normal if you didn't feel those feelings," Sporer tells the group.

She encourages patients to let go of negative feelings through visualization. Silently repeating the mantra, "If I listen to the body, it will know exactly what to do," completes the exercise.

Reinforcing the "amazing experience" of childbirth, a video depicts the moments after delivery when medical providers tend to a newborn's needs and the mother breast-feeds for the first time. Afterward, La Clinica staff tout the services of Sporer and other lactation specialists as patients share past trials and triumphs with breast-feeding.

"I was like this cow that had this machine on me," says 32-year-old Medford resident Raena Myers, mother of 4- and 7-year-old sons.

"It takes some faith," says Handelsman. "You can feel the difference between a right latch and a wrong latch."

Sharing such intimate details with strangers stifles some patients' enthusiasm. But most say they soon become comfortable with the group, which plans a reunion after all its babies are born. Patients still can request one-on-one appointments after the collective meeting or call the clinic's "pregnancy line" anytime with questions.

"As a new father, some of the questions we have, we kind of feel stupid to ask," says Medford resident, 23-year-old Robert Jones, who accompanied his pregnant wife, Kassidy Jones, 21.

Since attending Centering meetings, Robert Jones says he doesn't feel so "abnormal" because he knows others have similar experiences and concerns. And even parents of older children say there's still plenty to learn.

"There are so many new things that come out every year," says Grandy. "If I was a new mom, it'd be even better."

For more information about La Clinica and its programs, see www.laclinicahealth.org or call 541-535-6239.

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