Bastyr University midwifery students knew they would be hearing from a legend when Therese Charvet, longtime program director of the Seattle Midwifery School, was scheduled to speak to them Nov. 29. Little did they know that she made history again earlier that day.
En route to Bastyr on the ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, Charvet had just sat down to enjoy some quiet time with a cup of tea when she was reminded of the power of her profession.
She heard a request over the loudspeaker seeking anybody with medical experience. Then she heard the very distinct sounds of a woman in labor.
“Without thinking twice, I thought ‘I’m a midwife and I need to help,’” Charvet says.
She left her belongings and was at the side of the woman in labor within seconds.
“This was actually my first birth for 15 years, but it didn’t matter,” says Charvet, who now runs Sacred Groves, a forest retreat center on Bainbridge Island. “I knew exactly what to do.
“Birth is a miracle and to participate in it is a miracle.”
After Charvet assessed the progress of the labor, she reassured the parents-to-be and half-dozen medical onlookers that the birth was moving along normally. Everyone focused on making the woman comfortable, keeping distractions and interference at a minimum.
“And then we just let her contractions proceed,” Charvet says, adding that she had plenty of assistance from a retired labor and delivery nurse as well as from the helpful crew members, who fetched her belongings and brought them medical supplies.
By the time the ferry docked from the 30-minute ride across the sound, birth was imminent, Charvet says. “The paramedics had swooped in, but they let me continue to deliver the baby.”
The next scene was of a cooing new mama and papa, with their baby Lucy. Although the paramedics were ready to whisk them off by then, Charvet convinced them to wait for the placenta. “Then off they went,” she says. “And off I went wondering what had just happened!”
After a couple of stressful, chaotic weeks in her life, Charvet says the experience felt like a gift.
“It was a thrilling and wonderful experience,” she says. “It felt like a gift from the universe.”
Despite all of the excitement on her way to Bastyr, Charvet says she still arrived early to the “Midwifery Professional Issues” class she was speaking to.
Students and fellow midwives were eager to hear her story, but she says the most important lesson she can offer from the experience is to always be prepared to respond to the call and to just trust.
“Women’s bodies have been doing this for countless centuries,” she says. “If we just relax and support the woman, we don’t need to have any fancy skills besides being calm and catching the baby so it doesn’t hit the floor.
“That’s really the attitude that works with birth the best. Assume that everything will be fine unless you know otherwise.”
She’s had plenty of time to figure that after graduating in 1981 from the first class of the Seattle Midwifery School, which merged with Bastyr University in 2010 to offer the first regionally accredited, articulated, direct-entry Master of Science in Midwifery degree in the country.
Since then she has been a leader in furthering the midwifery profession as a founding member and first president of the Midwives Alliance of North America and the program director of the Seattle Midwifery School from 1988-2001.
But in all that time, her experience catching a baby on the ferry will remain a highlight.
“I’ve been a midwife for 30 years and I’ve lived on Bainbridge for 40 years,” she says, “and this is the first time I’ve ever had the honor and privilege of attending a birth on the ferry.”