The Wendy Effect

In 1974, Wendy Freed, a 3rd year student at UC Irving, took the opportunity to learn about parent/infant bonding by assisting Dr. Marshall Klaus who was beginning a new study at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala with birthing mothers.

Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City was a very busy place for birth – with over 50 women giving birth each day. The staff was busy, overwhelmed, and space was limited – requiring many women to labor in a room with up to 2 other women at a time. Women who were willing to participate in the study and met the criteria were given an envelope. This envelope dictated if they would be receiving what was considered “normal care” or “extra contact + rooming in.” Wendy, and the other students, were meant to observe the births that had “extra contact” and make notes.

“I still remember the first birth I ever attended. The women’s composure, the dignity of the indigenous woman, she was so filled with love. I can still remember the birth smells as the baby arrived. [Dr.] John Kennell was also present and we were in awe together.”

Dr. Klaus, and his partner in this study, Dr. Kennell, were both pediatricians, but their interest in the babies, did not overshadow their interest and concern for the mothers as well.

Since the hospital was so busy, Wendy began staying at night when it wasn’t as hectic – this was not a part of the study, she had fallen in love with the women giving birth. “There was something magical about being there at night… I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t just sit there with the midwives and students as women laboured often three alone in a room.” One portion of the hospital – “zone 19” was designated for lower income women that had recently migrated from rural to urban areas. These women “…were terrified being in a hospital. [There] was something about the women [in this zone] that was calling me to be with them…I remember one woman saying she had to poop and she gave birth in the bed. I didn’t know anything then, you learned as you went along…”

“Another image I hold is of three women in a room, two babies in a bassinet and the other woman griping my arms, the intense physical contact that was there.In Guatemala there is physical contact in daily life, [and] in passing, so the physical contact was intense – it pulled me into this vortex.”

Wendy said that she sensed that there was something happening for the women when she was present – their emotional experience seemed more positive and much less distressed.

Soon, the study officials reprimanded Wendy for violating the design of the study. At her young age of 19, and lack of experience, she did not “not totally understand what a double blinded, randomized, controlled trial was.”

She is considered the “First Doula” by many in the birth world – unable to sit on her hands and just observe, but instead to offer love, support and care to the women of Guatemala giving birth in her presence.

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