Elizabeth Benton Broderson Bray
February 16, 1970 ~ August 25, 2006
I have two really good options: I can either try this new drug and maybe get a little more time to spend with my family and friends or I can stop all treatment and meet my heavenly family a little sooner.
That’s what Beth told me when the news about her cancer was so grim. “Grim” is my word. Beth would never say that. Her words and attitude were upbeat and positive until the very end, even when her prognosis was so devastating.
I first came in contact with Beth, who was a certified nurse midwife, when I started teaching childbirth classes in late 2001. I sent all midwives in the area a note to let them know what I was doing. Beth called to wish me well. Then my classes started to fill up with her patients. She told me that when couples take my birthing class (and other private classes like mine , it makes her job as a midwife so much easier. What a complement!
My next contact with her was when one of her patients labored for many hours only to find out the baby was breech once she started to push. So they wheeled her to the operating room and gave her a spinal for a cesarean birth. I didn’t understand. Truly, I was naive. So I wrote Beth a letter and asked her if she wouldn’t mind explaining the reason for the surgery to me. In my opinion, the laboring mom was doing fine, the baby was fine, the baby was right there, ready to be pushed into the world; why not just go for it? Beth took the time to e-mail me and tell me that she has to pick her battles. She wasn’t going to push for a breech vaginal delivery on an “unproven pelvis.”
So started a 5 year e-mail correspondence, and an occasional phone call or lunch together. After one of our meals this Spring, she wanted to get together with the other doulas and natural childbirth educators or “birth junkies” as she called us. Sometimes I spotted her teeny tiny car with the butterfly license plate in the parking lot of the Good Foods Market and Cafe, so I would go find her. Once she sat across the table from me sipping a shot of wheatgrass. I’ve never seen a drink so green or smelled one so gross. I teased her about it, and she said that she was willing to try anything if it might make her healthier.
A couple years ago, one of the ladies in my childbirth class said, “Beth went home sick today.” Another person said, “I had an appointment with Beth, but I had to see someone else.” Comments like these continued.
So I asked Beth the dreaded question, “Is your cancer back?”
The answer was yes.
Midwives are pretty special people. And Beth was a midwife among midwives which made her extra special. I don’t think I ever met one of her patients who had any complaints about her. Beth listened — really listened — and followed the midwifery model of care, being patient during labor, letting it run its course no matter how many hours went by, as long as mother and baby weren’t showing any signs of distress. That’s what set her apart from other medical caregivers. In my birthing series, I have couples come back to class with their newborns to tell their birth stories.
After hearing a birth story from one of Beth’s patients, there sometimes would be a couple who would think, “That’s the kind of birth I want, and I’m not going to get it if I stay with my doctor.” So they would switch to Beth, usually late in their third trimester of pregnancy.
Beth’s dream was to have a home-birth practice. She was caught in the same place where other hospital-based nurse midwives find themselves: Her malpractice insurance didn’t allow home births (not all insurance provides have this rider for CNMs), and Beth would lose her admitting privileges at the hospital if she were to do homebirths.
And rare is the M.D. who will provide backup care for a midwife doing homebirths, whether she is a CNM like Beth or a certified professional midwife.
I like to think that if circumstances had been different with her health, and if she didn’t need the health benefits that came with working from a busy OB/GYN practice, she might have had her home-birth practice. I’m confident that she would have been catching lots of babies in the comfort of home.
There was a time when it looked like there might be a birth center opening in Lexington. When it didn’t work out, I told her how disappointed I was. Then she told me about her mission work and how she was trying to raise money to open a birth center in Africa. She told me it would be great if Lexington could have a birth center, but the women of this little village needed one more than we do.
When my daughter died, Beth was in the middle of one of her several hospital stays. I heard through the birth junkie grapevine that Beth had gotten a pass to get out of the hospital so she could attend the visitation. But when her health took a turn for the worse, her doctors wouldn’t let her out after all. My doula friends told me that Beth really wanted to be there but just couldn’t. Since Beth couldn’t come to me, I went to see her the next morning, not knowing what shape she would be in. She sat up, lively, and we paged through my daughter’s photo album as we talked of birth and death, just hours before my daughter’s funeral.
Shortly before Beth died, two of her doctors, independently of each other, told her that she should stop all treatment, quit work and enter hospice care. Yikes. She didn’t want to do that. She thought maybe the drugs were working for her. She felt she could keep on working. So she sought another opinion. There was one more option she hadn’t tried– not a cure, but a drug that might extend her life. She went just a couple times. The chemotherapy didn’t work, and she was swelling more than ever. After deciding to stop treatment, Beth wrote in her online journal:
After much prayer and gut-wrenching conversation, this is the path Scott and I have chosen. While I fully believe that God could heal me instantaneously and completely, I realize that my time on earth might be limited and I intend to make the most of it.
She posted that on Aug. 8, just 17 days before she died. She continued to work. She did what she loved up until the very end. The day before she died, I talked with her on the phone during her lunch break, and she told me she had just attended a long labor, and it was a great birth. She spilled soup on herself and asked if she could call me another time. That was the last time we talked.
The next night, I was lying in bed, having contractions. I was 39 weeks pregnant and beginning to think I might have a baby that night. Then my phone rang a little after midnight. That was weird. I wasn’t on call for a birth right now; my doula days were on hold for awhile. I wasn’t supposed to be getting calls; I was going to be the one making calls once I was in labor.
It was Nancy, a midwife who worked with Beth. She told me that Beth had passed away. I was stunned. I thanked her for the call and continued having light contractions.
I sobbed. I thought there would be more time. Her death seemed so unexpected.
I thought she would be at my baby’s home birth, not as my midwife, but as my friend. I thought she would see her husband graduate in December. I thought she would get sick (as if she weren’t already) and enter hospice, and I could go and say goodbye. A nurse at the hospital where she worked was putting together a scrapbook for Beth. I hadn’t even made my page yet. A few of us had talked about making a video for her. That hadn’t happened yet. There was no goodbye.
As my thoughts raged on, I was happy for her, happy that she didn’t linger any longer than she did. I was glad that she caught a baby the day before she died. I was glad that she went out to eat with her husband the night before. She lived her life, really lived, until the very end.
Then my tears turned to laughter when I imagined her in heaven. I knew Beth was a Christian, because we had talked about our faith. She was at peace with dying. I thought of her and Abby together, and smiled. As a birth professional, she had the pleasure of witnessing one of the most intimate and happiest moments of life.
But not every pregnancy comes to this joyous conclusion. Sometimes a pregnancy ends in miscarriage, or the baby is stillborn or dies in infancy. So Beth also was with couples during the worst moments of life, too. I think she’s still catching babies, but in a very different way than she did in this life.
My contractions eventually stopped that night after the news of Beth’s death. It would be three more weeks before my little one finally made his appearance. There was an empty chair in my living room the night my baby was born.
Only weeks earlier, I had attended my first and last birth with her. I had always wanted to see her in action, but I’d never had the opportunity. It seemed like whenever I was a doula for one of her patients, Beth was sick. So I was thrilled to finally be at a birth with her. It is a precious memory. We talked about her cancer as we walked to the basement after the birth. She showed me her swollen ankles and told me it helped her to be sympathetic for her pregnant patients.
I knew Beth the midwife, and I know that was only part of who she was. What made Beth a great midwife made her a great person. I know I can speak for all the birth junkies when I say, the birth scene will not be the same without you. Thanks for your wisdom in birth and your gentle hands during delivery. You are missed.