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Prof. documents stories of new life

Published: Monday, March 2, 2009

Updated: Monday, March 2, 2009 04:03

birth stories

Tim Kershner / IC

Medical students listen to Carolyn Lee, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, discuss her project documenting women’s birth stories.

Giving birth is a unique experience and differs for every woman. Whether naturally, by water, with the aid from a midwife or the old-fashioned way, bringing a new life into the world is a story that deserves to be told, said Carolyn Lee, an associate professor in the College of Nursing.

On Thursday, Lee presented "Women's Birth Stories," a brown bag seminar sponsored by the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women.

Around 40 people attended the event, which was held on the Health Science Campus, as Lee discussed the importance and impact of documenting women's birth stories and the effect it can have on health care providers such as nurses and doctors.

Since 2005, Lee and Judith Lamp, a professor in the College of Nursing, have been collecting and documenting personal testimonials from women who have given birth. The two are in the process of creating a journal based around the stories. The project began as assignments in one of Lee's clinical courses when she asked her students to interview women who had given birth.

"Our research examines the experience of birth for women, and we're interested in finding out the personal meaning of pregnancy," Lee said. "We're also interested in the birth story descriptions and how we deliver care to women and how our health care practices influence the perspectives women will have on their experience of birth."

Lee said many of her students initially treated the assignments as "busy work" and didn't see the value in it. However, after the students completed the assignments, several of them were grateful for the insight, she said.

During the research process, Lee and her students examined three aspects: "the cultural meaning and practices of the birth experience for women; the perceived social, cultural and health care influences on the birth experience; and how storytelling [is] used to better understand the experience of birth," she said. Each student was given a set of guidelines and asked women questions ranging from their prenatal care to whether they were satisfied with the way the nurses cared for them.  

"Our goal in having our nursing students to do these stories is really connected to their development as nurses," she said. "Whatever area of nursing they go into, whether they're with women or not, we really want them to understand that their greatest privilege and reward as nurse comes with being connected to people. When they listen to people's stories, they kind of take themselves into the patients' experience, and this will help them be more sensitive and positive nurses."

Lee said during their research she and her students found the patient care women received during labor played a major role in how they viewed their birth experiences. Lee's research also explored how hospital practices and disclosure policies have changed over time.

Several women at the event shared their own personal birth stories, and many recalled their husbands having to leave the room during the actual birth. One woman described being strapped to a hospital bed with leather straps during labor to prevent her from moving.

Lee shared some of the stories students have collected, which included women who felt they were pressured to take pain medications and one woman who was given medication to move her labor along but was never told what she was given.

"There are some universal messages that relate to the care women receive," Lee said. "Women want to receive good care, no matter the circumstance. I think some students thought this is just one more thing they had to get done, but, almost without exception, after they spoke with the women, students were so happy they did it."

Charlene Gilbert, director of the Eberly Center, said the uniqueness of Lee's work is what drew her interest to the project.

"We thought it was very interesting that Dr. Lee was doing research on women's birth stories, and it seemed like a really appropriate topic because we hadn't done a brown bag before about the topic. It seemed like a really good match, particularly since we were doing it on the Health Science Campus."

The manuscript has not been published yet and is not available to the public. Lee said she hopes to have the project completed later this year and that she and Lamp are waiting for the journal to be reviewed by the British Journal of Midwifery.

Lee said in the future she wants to collect birth stories from a more diverse population, including husbands, adoptive parents, teenage parents, multiple ethnicities and women from other countries.

"So far, the birth stories we have haven't been very diverse in the population because the students tended to interview someone from their own family," Lee said. "Because of our student population, we haven't had as much cultural and economic diversity as we might if we had talked to other women. We want to have represented stories from people from different cultures."

While the project may expand to include more women, which will require more people outside of UT to collect data, Lee said she wants to keep students somehow involved in the project.

"We don't want to take students out of it because that was the original plan," she said.

Brian Burke, a first-year medical student and the only male at the program, said the presentation allowed him to gain new insight into the birthing process.

"What I learned is that there is an excellent project occurring that will help to train nurses and expose individuals to the personal stories that a lot of people don't hear," he said. "I saw an opportunity to hear about other women's experiences, and this will help me to have a broader understanding when I'm a doctor."

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