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Empowerment and shared experience are keys to Niagara Falls prenatal care program

Expectant mothers in Niagara Falls are finding an improved model of prenatal care by monitoring their own health and sharing the experience of pregnancy.

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon, soon-to-be moms Melanie Del Valle, Shannon Schwarberg, and Karen Mathis enter a room in the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. They drop their coats and bags and head for a scale and blood pressure monitor. One-by-one, they take and record their own vitals, and then head behind a blue privacy curtain for a quick “belly check” with Physician Assistant Laura Debacco-Malysza.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Karen Mathis checks her blood pressure as part of the regular vitals check at a CenteringPregnancy session.

“So we do fundal height measuring – the height of the uterus – to make sure baby’s growing adequately,” said Debacco-Malysza. “We do the baby’s heart tones. We assess their blood pressure and their weight they took themselves, and we talk quietly and personally about any issues they wanted to bring up today.”

This check-up is the first step each time the women arrive for a session in CenteringPregnancy. It’s a program that is delivering a better model of prenatal care through empowerment and the support of a community.

After each of the moms-to-be have their check-up, they find their seats in a circle facing each other along with a few group facilitators, and Debacco-Malysza gets the Centering session started.

Because each of the three mothers is due to give birth between mid-January and early February, they’re able to follow the program’s guidebook together. Over the course of eight sessions, it takes them through the various stages of pregnancy that they’ll experience.

On this particular day, the first topic is stress and relaxation.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Physician Assistant Laura DeBacco-Malysza is the medical provider to all of the women in the Centering Pregnancy group, who have come to think of her also as a friend.

Debacco-Malysza leads some deep breathing exercises, encouraging the women to envision their babies getting lots of fresh oxygen, and reminding them that there will never be another time when they’re as close to their baby as they are during pregnancy.

Then it’s on to a round of charades to show what activities help each of the women unwind, followed by a facilitated discussion about the pros and cons of breastfeeding.

Over the course of the program, other topics like birthing methods, post-partum care, and even domestic violence get covered. And while the discussions are on some sensitive and serious subjects, the whole environment is meant to be comfortable and casual. The women share a light meal, music plays in the background, and the often-sterile settings of a hospital are replaced by a rainbow-laden rug and colorful baby onesies with the letters Centering spelled out on them.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
At the Centering Pregnancy group space, mothers-to-be gather In a circle where they can see and hear from each other as they take the journey through pregnancy together.

“Our mood is very light here,” Debacco-Malysza pointed out. “We are here for our patients. Our patients are very much here for each other. And it’s a little nerve-wracking for them to come for the first time, because pregnancy and just female care in general is a very personal time – a lot of personal questions, needs, concerns. But they soon find a lot of comfort in their peers.”

That comfort is part of the key to Centering. When the moms-to-be open up with questions, they’re not only for Debacco-Malysza and the medical providers in the room. They’re for each other.

“I just feel comfortable talking to them,” said Del Valle. “Because, you know, they’re going through the same things I’m going through. So it’s definitely a stress-free zone.”

That stress-free zone is important, too, because the three mothers are handling a lot. Del Valle and Schwarberg have little or no family who live locally. Mathis is in the middle of nursing school and this will be her third child. All three are surrounded by a world where advice comes from every direction.

CenteringPregnancy offers them each a support group and a place get the facts they need from a reliable source.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Soon-to-be mom Melanie Del Valle reviews progress in her CenteringPregnancy workbook with group facilitator Randa Hamayel.

“The doctor actually being there, versus looking at Google or just hearing from different people on the street. I mean, we’re still going to do that regardless. But when you’re with Laura and you have other people in group, everyone’s opinions come out, something you might have heard. So it’s like – boom – the doctor’s right there. She’ll tell you the best information,” said Mathis.

Not only can Debacco-Malysza share the best information, she can spend far more time doing it collectively with the mothers than she ever could in short, one-on-one office appointments.

Mathis and the other moms are part of the four Centering groups started in Niagara Falls Memorial since March, and the hospital has already seen two groups complete the program. The benefit of this alternative model of care is unmistakable.

“So, generally, when a patient is pregnant, they cannot wait for it to be over. They’re counting down the days. They’re done being pregnant,” said Debacco-Malysza. “Women who are in Centering look at me at the last session and say, ‘That’s it? We’re done? No more Centering? What do I do now?’ You go have your baby.”

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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