Birthing center delivers options

Women who delivered children at Charleston Birth Place gather Friday to mark the North Charleston center's first six months.

Kristen Johnson, 27, delivered her fifth child in March at Charleston Birth Place, the Lowcountry's first birthing center.

An alternative to hospital and home deliveries, the North Charleston center is a compromise for mothers who have a natural birth plan yet want accessibility to emergency care should complications arise.

"The experience is so much different," Johnson said. "You feel a lot closer to the whole thing."

Three of her babies were born in another birthing center, hours from her North Charleston home. There are three centers in the Upstate and one in the Midlands. Her fourth baby was born in a hospital, she said.

When she heard that the Charleston Birth Place was opening in January, she signed up at once to deliver Lucas, now 4 months old. On Friday, Kristen Johnson and her strawberry-blond son joined 15 other mothers with babies in tow to mark the center's first six months.

Owner and director Lesley Rathbun said, "I'm a compromise." The mother wants a home birth, and the father wants a hospital birth, she said.

Rathbun has "caught" more than 500 babies. She is a family nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwife.

Midwives are either licensed or certified. While licensed midwives often deliver babies at home, they are not required to have a medical background. Certified nurse midwives, however, are registered nurses with master's degrees who can practice in any medical setting. Rathbun is considered an independent health practitioner, and she can prescribe medicine.

The birthing center only works with low-risk pregnancies. Two birthing suites allow about 20 births per month. The center has delivered more than 30 babies since it opened in January.

Each suite has a queen-size bed, birthing pool, bathroom and shower. Women in labor are free to move around, eat, drink and mingle with family.

"The pretty birth rooms always come second to safety," Rathbun said. Only about five women have been transported to the hospital during labor, she said. Since she is registered at Trident Medical Center, which is minutes away, she can go with the mom and stay with her during treatment at the hospital.

"If they need a C-section, I'm in there doing it with them," she said.

What makes the center possible is the one-on-one attention she is able to give women. The overhead costs in hospitals make that hard, she said. Her malpractice insurance and expenses are lower because she is not a physician and doesn't have the high risk, she said.

Another nurse midwife is scheduled to join the staff in August. A massage therapist, lactation consultant and registered nurse also work at the center, in addition to about seven on-call nurses. Most insurers will pay some or all of the fees, Rathbun said.

The center is licensed by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and, in June, was accredited by Commission for the Accreditation of Birth Centers, becoming the only center in the state to meet this national standard.

Lee Horton, professor of nurse midwifery at Medical University of South Carolina, said, "This was a long time coming. (The center) means a major choice for women." Another center nearly opened in the early 1980s, she said, but the timing wasn't right.

In the U.S., a culture of fear has developed around pregnancy, Rathbun said. On TV and in movies, women in labor are screaming. "It's not shown as a gentle, quiet, peaceful event," she said.

About 60 percent of women who have used Charleston Birth Place are first-time moms, Rathbun said. Precious Champagne, 31, gave birth to her first baby, Nadira, five months ago. Champagne really wanted a water birth and learned of the center only two weeks before the birth, she said.

"It's a natural process your body goes through," she said. "While I'm not going to say it wasn't painful, it was not excruciating."