PROFILE: Midwife Geneviève Gagnon excitedly awaits opening of Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre

This article appears in the Summer edition of Ottawa Magazine, available on newsstands throughout June, July, and August, or order online.

By Laura Eggertson

As a toddler in Bourget, Geneviève Gagnon would rummage through the chest where her mother stored precious things. Her most prized possession? A 3-D pop-up book of ovaries, Fallopian tubes, and developing fetuses.

“It was very exciting when I was a kid,” says the 30-year-old, who still has the illustrated edition of The Facts of Life by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham. “What was fascinating was the sperm meeting the egg.”

Not your ordinary learn-to-read material, but perfect for the woman who has so far helped deliver close to 400 babies and who has been instrumental in the creation of Ottawa’s first birthing centre.

Gagnon cradles three-day-old Sophia Grace Phillips at the Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre. Photo by John Kealey.

When the Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre opens in September, it will be one of only two such facilities in the province. Along with birthing services, it will also offer childbirth education, parenting classes, and breastfeeding clinics, drawing people at various stages of the parenting cycle, whether they have delivered there or not. The centre is the result of a proposal that Gagnon — along with the Champlain Maternal Newborn Regional Program and other midwives in the city — put together in 2012. “It’s really about offering another choice with respect to birth place,” Gagnon says. “Nothing replaces your home, but this will be the midwives’ home, where we get to really celebrate what we do.”

As a midwife, Gagnon provides women with care from the time they learn they are pregnant until six weeks after they give birth. She is a trained health-care professional who plays the role of nurse, doctor, and pediatrician.

Two midwives attend each birth. Gagnon and her colleague support the labouring woman, assisting her through the many comfort measures and pain-relief options available. This means helping the woman move around, eat and drink, and use a shower or tub. Midwives are trained in massage techniques that ease the pain of contractions, and bring a wealth of knowledge and resources in terms of pain relief. By tracking the pulse, blood pressure, and other vital signs, midwives continually oversee the health of mother and baby. After a birth, Gagnon assists with lactation, breastfeeding, and newborn health care.

“What really appealed to me was that every birth was going to be different. There was never going to be anything mundane or routine.”

Gagnon is trained to handle every circumstance, whether her client decides to give birth in hospital, at home, or in the birthing centre. “If everything is running smoothly, you have a perfectly normal labour and birth and there’s no need to have a doctor or a nurse or anyone else, for that matter, in the room, except the family for family support and us.”

That said, some emergencies require her to transfer a woman to a doctor’s care — but she remains closely involved. “The majority of reasons why women plan home births and end up in hospital are non-urgent issues, like for pain relief or non-progression of labour or high blood pressure,” says Gagnon. If that occurs, the woman is admitted to the Montfort or the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital, where midwives have admitting privileges, or, in a real emergency, to whichever hospital is closer. The Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre will follow similar protocols, Gagnon says.

While most deliveries progress without complications, no two are exactly the same — which is part of what drew Gagnon to the field. “What really appealed to me was that every birth was going to be different,” Gagnon says. “There was never going to be anything mundane or routine.”

As a high school student at Plantagenet High School, Gagnon learned about sage-femmes, or wise women, at a career day presentation by midwife Chantal Bourbonnais. She had already applied to nursing at the University of Ottawa, so she completed her first two years, which included clinical placements in obstetrics and labour. Then, by fluke, Bourbonnais showed up again to talk to one of her nursing classes. Gagnon took that second meeting as a sign. She quit nursing and entered the midwifery program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, graduating from the four-year program with a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, specializing in mid-wifery.

By the time she graduated in 2008, she had delivered more than 100 babies. Since then, she has delivered close to 300 more. She jokes that after nearly 400 births, she sometimes forgets individual babies — “Names definitely get blurry. But the stories, I can never forget. They’re part of me.”

Gagnon notes that the close relationships she forms with her clients enrich her life and the way she feels about her work. “There’s nothing like being there for women and for families,” Gagnon says. “It’s highly rewarding.”

And she’s confident the new centre will rapidly become very connected to the community, a place for mothers and midwives to feel more at home.