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'Home away from home' for expectant moms in Santa Fe

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 1/5/2020

Jan. 5--With vigas on the ceilings of the renovated adobe building, large windows, a children's play area and abundant artwork, a new birthing center in Santa Fe is meant to feel like a "home away from home," said founder Meria Loeks.

A former midwife and registered nurse, Loeks said she dreamed for years of opening such a facility to give birthing mothers an alternative to a hospital. Last month, she moved forward with the Santa Fe Birth Center after receiving a license from the state Department of Health.

Housed in a small green adobe home on South St. Francis Drive, the center will provide wraparound services from prenatal to postpartum care, Loeks said, and it might offer a full range of women's health care for clients.

"We are trying to create a safe space and really build that one-on-one relationship" with the mother, said Rebecca Palak, the center's clinical director and its first full-time midwife.

The center is part of a growing birth trend in the U.S. A study from the American Association of Birth Centers said the industry has grown 76 percent since 2010. But it's been slow to take hold in Santa Fe. Currently, Loeks said, "There's nothing else like this here."

Loeks first started thinking of a birth center in the early 1970s, while living in Amsterdam with her husband at the time. Several mothers there shared stories of home births without the use of painkillers -- "Not the birth stories I heard growing up," she said.

After returning to the U.S., Loeks decided to give birth to her first child at home with the help of a midwife. The experience, she said, was "totally life-changing."

She decided to become a midwife and pursue a nursing degree. She later gave birth to two more sons at home, and she worked as a midwife for 35 years. Loeks also earned a master's degree in psychology and launched a private therapy practice that she still operates.

More than four years ago, she purchased the adobe building where she is opening the birth center. It previously served as the home of the Birthing Tree, a cooperative of professionals who serve soon-to-be mothers: nurses, midwives, doulas, acupuncturists and educators who offer a variety of resources and classes.

A couple of years ago, when a birth center operated by Southwest Care closed in Santa Fe, "It felt like fate," Loeks said.

In January 2019, she decided to pour $200,000 into renovations at the St. Francis building in preparation for the new birth center. The Birthing Tree cooperative then relocated to the city's south side.

Loeks hopes to start accepting her first clients by February.

The center has two birthing rooms, a main sitting area, a full kitchen and three clinical rooms. Each birthing room has a chair that reclines where family members can rest, a deep bathtub for mothers who choose to give birth in water and a large sink where a newborn baby can soak.

One of the rooms is flooded in light; the other is "more like a grotto, a cave" for those who like darker spaces, Loeks said. There is a private outdoor patio, with vines growing up garden walls and fruit trees expected to bloom in the spring. This, Loeks said, is so women can walk outdoors during labor to get fresh air.

Two midwives and a doula will assist in each birth, helping the mother manage pain with water, movement and other forms of support.

The center won't offer epidurals, Loeks said.

One of the greatest benefits for clients, she said, might be the psychological effects of giving birth in a space that already feels familiar. Because a client can come to the center at the start of a pregnancy for prenatal care, she is likely to feel more secure there during the birthing process than if she were surrounded by strangers in a hospital room, Loeks said.

"If you know and trust the people you're with, it makes an unbelievable difference," she said.

Palak agreed, though she noted that hospitals can be a better fit for some women and are a safer option for high-risk pregnancies.

Loeks expects the new center to eventually host 5 to 10 percent of the more than 1,200 annual births in Santa Fe.

She hasn't yet determined the price the center will charge for its services. Comparable birthing centers typically range between $6,500 to $7,000, most of which is covered by health insurance for families that have coverage.

Loeks said she plans to implement a sliding pay scale to help meet each family's financial needs and also is seeking assistance for low-income families through a private foundation.

"We want this to be inclusive and accessible to any woman interested in giving birth at the birth center," she said as she walked through the peaceful adobe building on a snowy afternoon.

"It's so quiet, and you feel so held," Loeks said. "The beauty of the place just creates this sense of serenity. There's a really home-like feeling to it."

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