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Birth navigator looks to guide expectant mothers

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Posted: Monday, January 7, 2019 8:26 am

Jennifer Harris is not a nurse, obstetrician, caseworker or mental health counselor.

She’s just a warm and witty woman with a work ethic that won’t quit, who shows up, steps up and cares deeply.

Harris is also the birth navigator at Peterson Women’s Associates — a brand-new position first created in October 2018 by Kristen Johle, the PWA practice manager.

“Motherhood starts the minute you find out you’re having a baby, and you have so many questions,” Johle said. “I started researching and discovered this birth navigator position is something that exists at many larger hospitals, and you have someone who carries you all the way through pregnancy up until three months postpartum,”

Johle said she started researching the idea of birth navigators around June 2018 and became convinced it was the right next step for the clinic.

“A woman’s choice is an incredibly powerful thing, but we want to make sure we’re walking through the journey beside them and empowering them,” said Johle, who worked for Peterson Health in marketing for seven years before accepting her position as PWA practice manager last April. “At any given point you have choices and we respect these choices.”

Once every six months, PWA hosts a Celebrate Your Pregnancy event in the main lobby of the hospital, said Johle.

At the event, vendors visit and expectant mothers can tour labor and delivery and learn about everything from safe sleep to infant CPR to hospital security to digital footprint scans. They can also bring the siblings, eat, win door prizes and socialize with other expectant mothers, said Johle.

The next Celebrate Your Pregnancy event will be held Jan. 26 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the main hospital lobby.

But for the birth navigator role, Harris seemed a natural choice from the beginning, Johle said, although Harris’ background — 17 years as clinic coordinator for a pediatric cardiology office — seems an unlikely fit at first blush.

“We have a wonderful triage nurse, so clinical knowledge we’ve got,” Johle said. “But not everyone has a large education, and sometimes medical language can be intimidating, so we needed somebody who could talk to women like a real person. I wanted someone who could build relationships and be additional support staff.”

Johle added that she felt it was important that women have someone with whom they could connect and speak freely about the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood.

Harris — who describes herself as a “people person”— said that the pediatric cardiology field served her well as preparation for dealing with difficult pregnancy outcomes.

“I’ve watched a lot of little people come into this world, and I stood with them through the great outcomes and the sad ones,” she said. “I look at this position the same way. I have the opportunity to walk with these moms, to hold their hands.”

Harris recounted that in her interview, she said that the birth navigator position would be an incredible blessing for someone — whether it turned out to be her or not.

After Harris was hired, she and Johle collaborated to roll out the birth navigator’s duties gradually. Harris began working with the postpartum mothers for the first three months after their discharge.

Harris visits the mom and new baby in the hospital. Then, three days after delivery, she checks to see how mothers are doing and if they have any other needs or questions or concerns.

“I’m the mom’s GPS,” Harris said with a laugh.

For breastfeeding mothers, she can help them acquire a breast pump if they need one.

Harris continues to check in with the mother throughout the postpartum period and connects them with appropriate providers if the mother has medical concerns or seeks help for postpartum depression.

“Pregnancy and childbirth are this big physical thing and society is so often dismissive of it,” said Harris, saying she hopes to honor the woman’s need for recovery and time to adjust.

Harris is also there to assist mothers who are transitioning back to the workplace, helping them check out FMLA guidelines as well as find childcare providers if needed, Johle said.

Ultimately, Harris will be present at every phase of pregnancy as well as the postpartum period, but the program is in a transitional phase and expansion is gradual, Johle said.

“When I first meet a woman, the first question I ask is, ‘What’s your support network,’” said Harris, noting that she tailors her approach to the individual mother’s needs.

“It’s an amazing position because you get to touch all the new little folks who come into the world in Kerrville,” Johle said.

But the position comes with unique challenges as well, Johle added.

“Sometimes we get moms who are looking at adoption care, and the birth navigator can help pair her with adoption agencies,” she said.

Harris said that she also collaborates with social services when mother or baby needs services beyond those PWA can offer.

“We serve a wide range of women and they don’t all come from picture-perfect backgrounds,” Johle said. “But we now have more time to spend with them, to help them — that’s really important.”

Harris said that these difficult cases are both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

“I want every situation to be perfect, and not every situation is perfect. I want every mommy to have a storybook ending, but I’m not sure every mom does. But all I can do is walk beside them,” she said.

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