A Midwife’s Tale

Aug. 28–When Shari Daniels thought she was pregnant with her first child, she did what most women would: She visited the doctor. But he dismissed her queasy feeling after a urine test proved negative and suggested she see a psychologist because she was only “thinking yourself pregnant.”

“He talked to me like I was an idiot and gave me no credit for knowing my own body. There were no ultrasounds back then and pregnancy tests were extremely unreliable. I tested negative for all my three kids,” Daniel recalled.

That was 1971, in El Paso, Texas, and, after her experience with the doctor, Daniels searched for a midwife but couldn’t find one. She went to an obstetrician, who confirmed she was four months pregnant.

When it came time to deliver, the doctor left around 8 p.m. that day, because Daniels wasn’t dilating, and said to call if anything developed.

‘The first nurse on shift was nice but, around midnight, the ‘wicked witch of the west’ came in. She was somehow insulted that I wanted to have a drug-free birth and kept insisting that I take the epidural. She threatened, ‘You’ll be screaming for me to put you out of pain later,’ and actually locked my husband out of the room. I was all alone in there,” Daniels said.

A few minutes after the nurse left the room, Daniels began to push as she felt her daughter’s head emerging.

“I felt like I was sitting on a bowling ball at that point and they kept telling me to wait for the doctor,” she said. “I ended up delivering by myself. It was the most amazing feeling pulling my daughter’s shoulders out.”

The experience also left Daniels with a calling: to become a midwife, a profession she would practice first in Texas, then in other places, including overseas, and at a birthing center she opened in North Miami Beach, at 140 N.E. 119th St.

In the three decades since her first experience giving birth, Daniels, now in her 50s, has delivered 10,000 babies, by her count, and has trained perhaps 500 midwives from coast to coast.

“God chose this path for me,” she said. “My experience giving birth to my first daughter Trevin was very traumatic and I wanted young women to have the choices I didn’t have.”

Soon after her solo delivery, Daniels began offering free childbirth classes at her home and nearby churches and acting as a labor coach. Before she knew it, word had spread around her small Texan town and she began receiving unexpected visitors.

“One night I had a Mexican woman who was an illegal alien show up at my door in a taxi cab. She had labor pains and delivered right on my bed. I assisted her and made her child a U.S. citizen without charging her a dime,” she said.

Pregnant moms kept ringing her doorbell and soon Daniels was delivering twins for $25.

“My husband kept telling me, ‘Somebody’s gonna die one of these days and they’re gonna blame you. You gotta get more formal training,’ ” she said.

Daniels began studying with Raul Vilorio, a Cuban country doctor in Fabens, Texas, who gave her her first obstetrics book and taught her how to read a fetal scope. After further study, she felt ready to open her own maternity center.

“It was an old dilapidated building that I bought for $20,000,” she recalled. “I started working on it 21 hours a day, plastering, painting, doing some of the plumbing and carpeting. My dad was in construction, so he helped a lot. I bought the building in June and wanted to open by Aug. 15. Everyone thought I was crazy.”

But, sure enough, The Maternity Center Inc. opened on Aug. 15, 1976, the first midwife-run birth center in the United States, according to The History of Midwifery textbook. The nonprofit center was such a success Daniels opened three other centers within the next decade. Then came a tough year: 1986.

“I went through a very bad divorce, partly because I was so devoted to my job that I wasn’t home enough, and really considered quitting for a while. Also, one of the midwives I had trained had a maternal death and I was dragged into the lawsuit for answering her distress call and advising her to take the girl to the hospital,” Daniels said.

Her mind was made up: no more delivering babies. She handed over her maternity centers to members of her staff and decided to move to Israel, where she had close friends.

“I thought I was done but, sure enough, within three weeks of arriving in Israel, I had delivered a child,” she said.

To reconnect with her four children, especially her 12- and 15-year-old daughters, who were not happy with their new life in Israel, Daniels spent her savings traveling with them for 18 months.

“We visited Greece, Egypt, Vienna, Hungary, India, Hong Kong and Honolulu and spent some time in each place, before heading back to El Paso,” she said.

Daniels eventually settled in North Miami Beach, where she found “a nice Jewish community.” In 1995, she opened a birth center, along with the International School of Midwifery. This time around, she was able to balance her love life with the demands of her job and she remarried. Now, after 30 years as a midwife, she is learning a whole new trade: being a grandmother to daughter Joy’s newborn.

Although she still has a lot to learn from her mother, whose credentials read like the alphabet — Licensed Midwife, Certified Practicing Midwife, Master of Science in Education — Joy Luria decided to become a Licensed Midwife and join Daniels’ staff. Growing up in a birth center, peeking into delivery rooms in the midst of water breaking and baby’s first cries gave her some early training. Luria is also trained in Ayurveda, the ancient healing art of India, complementing her mother’s “Western medicine” with Eastern wisdom.

“After I got pregnant, I wanted to spend more time with my mom and, since she’s always working, the only way to do that was to work with her,” Luria said. “Maybe as a child or teenager I resented her not being home more. But now that I’m also a midwife and mother, I understand her better. She’s made up for a lot of that time away by baby-sitting my son Ashton. We’re even.”

Mothers are not the only ones who have taken notice of Daniels’ birth center. Discovery Health contracted with her and her staff to film 26 episodes of a new reality TV series called House of Babies.

Filmed at Miami Maternity, the show will air in January, with some preliminary episodes showing as early as October.

“I told the Discovery people, ‘I’m not putting makeup on, changing my uniform, repainting the place or doing things differently for you. I will keep on going to work every day to take care of mothers and babies, which is what I do best and not be distracted by your crew,’ ” she said.

Her no-nonsense attitude has served her well.

“There’s one thing I tell mothers when they walk through my door: I can’t make birth defects or complications go away but I can love you if you have to go through them, and take care of you and your baby like my life depends on it,” she said.


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