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'Mother of midwifery' in Alaska retires

Juneau Birth Center founder Kay Kanne to leave position - but not her profession

Posted: June 8, 2014 - 12:02am
Kay Kanne stands outside of the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center on Tuesday.  Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Marlena Sloss | Juneau Empire
Kay Kanne stands outside of the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center on Tuesday.

Kaye Kanne can be considered the mother of midwifery in Alaska. From founding the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center to successfully lobbying midwifery legislation into law, she has given thousands of women in Juneau and other Southeast communities something that was never available before, the option of alternative birthing methods.

After practicing midwifery for three decades, attending more than 1,000 births and opening the JFHBC in Juneau, Kanne retired from the birth center in April to focus on her work at the national level, which she has also been doing for the past 22 years.

“When I ended up moving to Juneau in 1984, I had attended 200 births by then, but I hadn’t been practicing on my own,” Kanne said. “There was no licensing in Alaska, so I immediately got involved in that. It took eight years to get a midwifery board. The first board got the law passed in 1992, so there could be midwives in Alaska.”

Kanne served on that board, the Certified Direct-Entry Midwife Licensing Board, from its inception until her term limit was met in 2000. During that time, she “served as chair and helped craft the laws the govern CDM in Alaska today,” according to the JFHBC website.

During that time, as a practicing midwife, Kanne founded what is now known as the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center based on feedback from her clients.

“(As a midwife, I knew a) group of parents that really wanted to see a birth center in Juneau,” Kanne said. “So many women would really have liked to have a midwife, but didn’t feel comfortable having a home birth.”

Acting as “volunteer architect, contractor and laborer,” Kanne and 70 volunteers built the original, nonprofit Juneau Birth Center in rented space in 1998. But as the need for expanding services became more apparent, Kanne began fundraising to build a new facility.

“I raised the $3.9 million needed for this new facility over six years, while serving as executive director and midwife. Funding came from federal, state and city appropriations as well as foundations, businesses and individuals,” Kanne wrote on the National Association of Certified Professional Midwives website.

The new facility opened in 2008 and took on the now familiar moniker, but with expanded services — ones that were not offered at the original Juneau Birth Center.

“(We) expanded (our) vision to include healthcare and provide a lot more family services,” Kanne said of the new facility.

Since the opening of the birth center in 1998, the center has seen 60 to 80 births per year, including home births and transports. Kanne alone has attended more than her fair share.

“I have personally attended more than 1,000 births,” she said. “I lost count a few years ago when I hit 1,000. I should really go back through and check on that.”

Though Kanne retired from the JFHBC, she will continue to be a part of the Juneau midwifery community, and continue to advocate for stronger regulations on the national level.

“I’ll continue my education and stay a midwife,” Kanne said, “but I just can’t have a full-time job. I was executive director, the birth center director, a midwife, I just couldn’t get it down to one job. I just need to let go of this job and do my own work … Starting a nonprofit so that I could eventually leave it and it would continue as part of the community has always been my vision.”

Diana Rossmiller, a founding member of the JFHBC and former patient of Kanne, agreed that “what she has created has grown so much bigger than her and has grown beyond her. I know that she will be missed in her position as a founding member and director, but I do think that the organization is really solid and will continue thriving in her absence.”

Most of the midwives that continue to work at the JFHBC were students of Kanne. And while she may not be present, her knowledge and years of experience have been passed down to a new generation of midwives, most of which can attribute their career to her lifelong work.

As for Kanne’s work in the future, she currently serves on several national boards, including the National Association for Certified Professional Midwives, an association that aims to create licensing in every state, where there are “probably 17 states that don’t license and there are midwives still going to jail for what they do,” Kanne said.

She also serves as the treasurer of the Commission for Accreditation of Birth Centers, to make accreditation a mandatory policy rather than a voluntary one. And the United States Midwifery Education, Regulation and Association, a group of midwives that “work toward the common goal toward national promotion of midwifery.” Including consulting businesses and helping midwives start birth center foundations.

Dawn Jouppi, a former patient of Kanne’s who had all three of her children either at the birth center or using a midwife for a home birth, described Kanne as being “an asset to Juneau.”

“She opened up the door to midwifery here,” Jouppi said. “And we have a thriving community of midwives here that do great work all over Southeast. We have midwives that fly to help people in other communities, and people from other communities that fly here to give birth at the birthing center. So I think that says something, that people want to come here, and have that experience in Juneau. And not every community has that, not even in big cities sometimes, so we’re special.”

Brief history of midwifery

• Midwifery is an ancient profession, found in mythology, the Old Testament and studies done by anthropologists in “primitive” tribes, all of which display women, and not men, present at child birth.

• Obstetrix (or obstetrics) is Latin for midwife: which is thought to derive from obstare (“to stand before”), because the attendant stood in front of the woman to receive the baby.

• The first successful cesarean section was done in the British Isles by an Irish midwife, Mary Donally, in 1738.

• In the U.S., the profession of nurse-midwifery was established in the early 1920s as a response to a high rate of infant and maternal mortality.

• A group of mothers, nurses and obstetricians formed the Maternity Center Association in New York City to address the problem, and looked to foreign countries with outstanding maternal child health records to serve as models. They found the most prominent figure in the maternity cycle was the nurse-midwife.

• In Kentucky, Mary Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service to provide family health services to isolated areas in the Appalachian Mountains by sending public health nurses. When she learned about nurse-midwives in Europe, she traveled to France and England to experience it firsthand. In 1929, she brought back British nurse-midwives to the U.S., where they serves as the first nurse-midwives in America.

• It wasn’t until the 20th century that the subject in medical schools switched from “midwifery” to “obstetrics.”

About the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center

• The Juneau Family Health and Birth Center is located at 1601 Salmon Creek Lane, less then a quarter mile from Bartlett Regional Hospital.

• The facility offers a home-like environment with each of the three private birthing suites offering a private bathroom, queen-sized bed, a rocking chair, a labor/birth Jacuzzi tub with handmade tilework and emergency equipment on-hand.

• The birth center also offers a family room with a kitchen, games and a television room for guests to wait and an activity room for other children to spend time and wait.

• The center also offers pregnancy testing, prenatal exams, postpartum exams and family services that include doula services, massage therapy, child birthing classes, parenting classes and new parent groups.

• For those who do a home birth through the center, staff from the birth center will do home visits for appointments and general checkups with the family postpartum.

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