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Midwife Center Poised To Become Largest Birth Center In The Nation

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Even Pittsburghers who don’t know exactly what The Midwife Center is have probably noticed the mural that adorns its northeastern wall while driving through the Strip District.

A pregnant woman in a purple dress, two stories tall, almost seems to dance amidst a scene of trees and buildings and rivers.

“To many people, this is the best mural in Pittsburgh,” said architect Dan Rothschild, with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.

The mural that was once on the outside of The Midwife Center's building will now be on the inside, as part of an expansion six years in the making. Clinical director and certified nurse-midwife Ann McCarthy said the center started thinking about an expansion in 2010, when it began to see its client roster grow. The capital campaign began in 2013, and ground was broken on the project in July of this year. 

The expansion increases the center's square footage from 5,000 to 11,700, adding two new birth suites, additional exam rooms and lots of new office and storage space.

Rothschild said incorporating the mural into the new space was the biggest challenge, but that it made for some happy accidents.

“Although it’s one connected mural, there are three different scenes,” he said, gesturing to the treetop scene on the third floor. “We’re sort of reaching to the sky. The scene on the second floor is actually the city, so you’ll see like a silhouette of Pittsburgh with buildings. And then on the first floor is actually the bottom of the mural, where you see the cycle of a woman going through her pregnancy.”  

Last week, Midwife Center staff invited board members, supporters and clients to take a look at the developing space, as they made the push to raise the last $150,000 of a $3.8 million capital campaign.

The Midwife Center is the only free-standing birth center in Western Pennsylvania, and executive director Christine Haas said the expansion will make it the largest in the nation.

“We’re one of the oldest and busiest now, and once we expand we will be the biggest,” she said.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Midwife Center on Penn Ave. in the Strip District will increase from 5,000 square feet to 11,700 square feet. Most of the mural that adorns the existing building's northeastern wall will be inside the new space.

Haas said the center has been at capacity for years now, mirroring a nationwide trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control,midwives were present at more than 9 percent of births in 2014. That’s three times the rate in 1989, when the government first started tracking data.

Ann McCarthy said there have been times when all three birth rooms have been occupied and a fourth woman went into labor. She said in those cases, they were prepared to admit women to the hospital.

“But it’s never come to that. Someone has been discharged, we’ve quickly cleaned the room and admitted the next woman,” McCarthy said. “Knock on wood, we’ve never gotten to that point, but women worry about that. I can’t imagine that will ever be a problem in the new building.”

McCarthy said there are probably several reasons for increasing interest in midwifery care. Pregnant women don’t want to be treated like they’re sick, as if birth is a medical problem to be solved. She said they want to feel like they’re in charge of their own labor and birth process, which is much easier in the home-like setting of a birth center.

“It’s comfortable, there are double beds in every room, women are allowed to wear their own clothes or whatever they feel comfortable in,” McCarthy said. “We don’t limit the number of people that are with women for their labors and births. Women eat and drink during labor and labor in all sorts of positions.”

Sarah Fortnam, 34, of Glenshaw delivered all three of her children at The Midwife Center. She met her husband in college when they were both studying anthropology, and she said that education influenced her to pursue midwifery care for her pregnancies.

“When you learn about birth in other cultures, it’s a very joyous occasion. It’s very celebratory,” she said. “We looked at it as a way to welcome parenthood as well as this new being into our lives and we wanted to make that as positive as we could.”

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Midwife Center's Medical Director, Janice Anderson (left), points out new features to Christian and Lindsay Cashman on December 8, 2016.

Even 34-year-old Lindsay Cashman of Mt. Lebanon, who had to transfer to the hospital because of a medical issue during labor, said she felt empowered through the entire process.

“(The midwives) were very helpful at allowing us to have all of the appropriate information, answering any questions we had, making sure we felt confident and comfortable making those decisions to do everything that was necessary to have a positive birth in the space we did not want to be in,” she said.

Cashman’s baby Jordan is now six months old, and is one of more than 400 babies delivered with the help of the center’s midwives this year. Additionally, 1,500 women seek gynecological care at The Midwife Center each year. McCarthy said the expansion will double both those numbers.

New features include water birth, behavioral health care, classroom space, an elevator and a parking lot. The new space is expected to open in early Spring 2017, about nine months after ground was first broken.

Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.