Midwifery Chair Has History of Advocacy

Portrait of midwifery chair suzy myers

It was the activist in Suzy Myers that first attracted her to the field of midwifery, and as she's helped bring nearly 2,000 babies into this world, that activist has remained vigilant.

"When I first got involved in the health care movement, I hadn't even really considered becoming a practitioner," says Myers, who is now the chair of the Department of Midwifery at Bastyr University. "I was more interested in being an activist."

But when Myers moved to Seattle in 1971, the energy surrounding the women's movement and health care reform turned her into both an activist and a practitioner, as well as an educator.

"I just knew this was what I wanted to do with my life," Myers says. In 1978, she co-founded the direct-entry Seattle Midwifery School, graduating in the pilot class and qualifying as one of its first licensed midwives in 1980 before embarking on her career teaching many of the school's core courses. Then in 1983, Myers helped launch the Midwives' Association of Washington State to organize and advance the profession statewide.

However, over the years the many sleepless nights supporting families during labor and delivery began to take a toll on Myers, and she recently retired from active clinical midwifery practice. Seattle Home Maternity Service and Childbirth Center, the clinical service she started with partner and Seattle Midwifery School co-founder, Marge Mansfield, continues to thrive.

"I loved being a practicing midwife for the 32 years that I did it, but I was just physically tired," says Myers, who came to Bastyr in 2009 when Seattle Midwifery School joined the University to form its new Department of Midwifery. "I was ready to shift my focus to being a full-time educator and advocate. I see myself as midwifing future midwives."

The Push for Midwifery Access Nationwide

Despite the long hours spent attending to mothers in labor, combined with her career as an educator at one of the nation's top midwifery schools, Myers always did find the time for activism.

"The point isn't to make the world better for midwives," she explains, "but to train good midwives so that the women, children and families they serve have a better life.

"Experienced midwives will qualitatively improve the health of families, and if you have healthy families, you have a healthy society."

After successes in Washington state updating an outdated midwifery law, Myers pursued a Master of Public Health to gain a more credible voice in her advocacy. Gradually, she has expanded her scope to the national level as a member of the board of the directors of the National Association of Certified Professional Midwives (NACPM), which has spearheaded the Mothers and Midwives in Action Campaign (MAMA Campaign) in its efforts to provide more access to midwives across the nation.

"It's a challenge," Myers admits. With midwives licensed in only half of the United States, one of the NACPM's goals is to support efforts to pursue licensure at the state level, while trying to increase awareness of its own national credential.

However, Myers says that the group's most important contribution is in ensuring that certified professional midwives (CPMs) are eligible in Medicaid programs. Over the past two years the MAMA Campaign has worked with key members of Congress and recently helped to introduce the "Access to Certified Professional Midwives Act of 2011," which proposes giving women enrolled in Medicaid the option to choose a certified professional midwife (CPM) for their maternity care.

"We feel that if women who have private insurance have the option to choose a midwife, women on Medicaid should have access as well," says Myers, who points out that 41 percent of all births nationwide are covered by Medicaid. "It's an issue of access, but also an issue of fairness."

However, support for the House bill will likely come down to money.

"The bill has the potential to save Medicaid millions of dollars," Myers says. Based on a 2007 study (pdf) by the Washington State Department of Health, births attended by CPMs resulted in far fewer Caesarean sections than did low-risk hospital births, contributing to a savings to the state's budget ranging from $473,000 to as much as $3.1 million per biennium.

The proposal, H. R. 1054, was introduced in March 2011 by U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and co-sponsored by Jim McDermott, D-Washington. The list of other congressional sponsors is growing.

"Twins Separated at Birth"

While Myers awaits the outcome of the national bill, she's busy with spring quarter 2011 at Bastyr University. Since the Seattle Midwifery School joined Bastyr, the University's new Department of Midwifery now offers the nation's first regionally accredited, direct-entry, articulated Master of Science in Midwifery degree.

"We are very proud of our science-based orientation to the study of natural medicine and are excited to offer a strong research component to the Master of Science in Midwifery," says Tim Callahan, senior vice president and provost of Bastyr University.

The program provides entry-level midwifery clinical training by accepting students with no previous education in another health profession, as well as students without a bachelor's degree who also earn a master's degree upon completion of the program.

"I feel very gratified to have the opportunity to be part of this new Department of Midwifery," Myers says, adding that the dedication of both institutions to improving the health of the community while emphasizing social justice and leadership skills make them an ideal match.

"We're sort of like twins separated at birth," Myers says.

Both schools also have similar roots, starting out small, but with big aspirations that have led to a current combined student body of more than 1,000 students.

In contrast, Seattle Midwifery School started in 1978 with five students who were taught in homes, restaurants and other "borrowed spaces," while Bastyr University (then called John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine) was launched with only $200 in startup costs. Bastyr's first Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine class graduated in 1982, the same year the school created a Certificate in Naturopathic Midwifery.

Since then, both institutions have grown and expanded, with Bastyr University relocating its campus in 1996 to a 51-acre former seminary just north of Seattle. And with Myers and the rest of the Seattle Midwifery School now aligned with Bastyr University, the "twins separated at birth" have been rejoined.

"Suzy Myers is an inspirational and passionate advocate for natural childbirth, an excellent teacher and a visionary colleague," adds Bastyr Provost Callahan. "We are very privileged to have her in our midst."