Sep. 6, 2011 at 9:17 AM ET
Most teens spent their summer sleeping in and hanging out with friends at the mall, pool or beach. Seventeen-year-old Allie Sakowicz had quite a different view: a hospital maternity ward. Sakowicz, an honor student from Park Ridge, Illinois, is a volunteer birth doula, providing support to teen moms through labor and delivery.
The doula gig is a natural choice for the high school senior, who says, “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 9 years old.” Sakowicz’s mom, Catherine, adds, “Allie never wanted to play with Barbie dolls. She wanted a stethoscope.”
Sakowicz says that TV birth shows were the inspiration for her current calling. “When I was 13 or 14 I saw a program that featured doulas,” she says. “I realized that this was a way that I could make a difference because as a teenager, I have a unique perspective that can help young moms.”
Doulas help mothers before, during and after childbirth by offering encouragement and an understanding of the physiology of birth. Sakowicz focuses solely on teen mothers, who, she notes, don’t always have family or partner support to back them up. “I don’t make decisions for the moms, but I help them if they have trouble communicating what they want or don’t want. When you’re a teen mom in labor, your voice can get lost in the process.”
Being a peer gives Sakowicz an edge that other doulas don’t have. “Some teen moms don’t want a ‘mother’ figure and they see me more as a friend. They aren’t as embarrassed to talk to me about certain things as they might be with an older doula,” she observes. “I have both a friendship and a professional relationship with young moms.”
Sakowicz is one of the youngest members of DONA International, one of the world’s oldest and most respected doula support and education organizations. According to DONA spokesperson Lori Hill, “Our certified doulas serve thousands of women and their families each year and Allie is working to become part of that community.”
Certification from DONA International includes attending and acting as the primary doula for actual births, and completing hours of instruction on birth methods, breast feeding and postpartum support. Doulas-to-be must also submit extensive written work and receive written physician and patient evaluations. Sakowicz has completed all of these strenuous requirements before the age 18.
Most teens would flinch at the prospect of watching and participating in a birth. Not so for Sakowicz, who says that her doula training and personal interest in the birth process allows her to be strong for her patients. “I’ve been present at births where things have gone terribly wrong in a matter of seconds,“ Sakowicz says. “My training helps keep me calm because I usually know exactly what is going on and what the next steps will be.”
Difficult births also provide Sakowicz with valuable life lessons, such as when she helped a teen mom through an extremely trying labor and delivery. “When I spoke to the mom about it later, she said that, in her eyes, the birth was ‘perfect,’ ” says Sakowicz. “Just because things don’t go according to plan, as long as there is a healthy mom and baby, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad experience.”
To date, Sakowicz has attended 10 births and has learned something new from all of them. “I’ll never know what will work best for a mom until she’s actually in labor,” she says. “For example, a massage may work wonders for some moms; other moms don’t want to be touched at all.” One of her favorite tricks is helping a mom to concentrate on a focal point. “It sounds easy,” Sakowicz acknowledges, “but this strategy has helped more than one of my patients.”
When she’s not working as a doula, Sakowicz spends her time “being a normal teenager, playing on my high school badminton team and getting ready to enter the college application process.”
Still, medicine is closest to Sakowicz’s heart. And while her continuing work as a doula gives her a front row in the maternity ward, she dreams of becoming an obstetrician. “There’s absolutely nothing like witnessing a new life come into the world,” says Sakowicz. “It’s an indescribable feeling and it’s something that I look forward to experiencing the rest of my life.”
Jenny Kales writes about parenting with food allergies for many publications and is the creator of the award-winning blog, “The Nut-Free Mom." She lives near Chicago with her husband and two daughters.
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