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Baystate Health midwife documents birth in Lifetime® photo essay

March 26, 2018

Documenting women’s stories at Baystate Franklin Medical Center

When photographer Alice Proujansky was asked by Lifetime ® A+E to participate in their women-driven project Her America, she knew exactly where to go – The Birthplace at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. Proujansky, whose work centers around women, remembers her first birth photography experience, which was at Baystate Franklin when she was only seven years old.

“I lived right across the street from the hospital, and was able to be present for the births of both my sister and my brother. My parents gave me a point and click camera to use in the hospital room,” she said, “although I can’t say they were great photos!”

When she returned to Baystate Franklin, Proujansky met Sarit Shatken-Stern – a midwife who also happened to be nearly 39 weeks pregnant. Shatken-Stern expected that Proujansky’s visit would involve documenting a day-in-the-life of a midwife. She hoped that some babies would be delivered, and that the families would be willing to be photographed. It was a gamble; there was no guarantee that any of the women giving birth that weekend would be willing to sign off on the project.

"Even the most normal, mundane birth has its moments of awe. They’re all full of awe.”

Shatken-Stern didn’t think that she would be giving birth that weekend, as she expected that her pregnancy might last 41 weeks. When she began to feel contractions, Proujansky’s story quickly changed from that of a midwife at work to that of a mother in labor. And she allowed Proujansky to document the entire process, because "birth isn't really sexual or private for me. I want people to see what birth can look and sound like. It's good! It's normal."

Shatken-Stern – who has been focused on labor and delivery since the beginning of her health care career – says “I still cry at births, and I still am amazed and I still get surprised all the time. I’ve got lots of machines, but ultimately it’s just this natural process that we are working with to try and facilitate. Even the most normal, mundane birth has its moments of awe. They’re all full of awe.”

In the early stages of her labor, Shatken-Stern said she felt a sense of relief having Proujansky by her side. “Although I had just met her when I came to work that morning, it was so nice to have her with me. Her presence was so supportive and helpful,” said Shatken-Stern. As labor progressed, in an effort to focus to focus and relax, she changed out of her scrubs and retreated to the hospital’s healing garden. She was joined by her husband, Adam Stern, a cardiologist at Baystate Medical Center. As her contractions grew stronger, she returned to her colleagues in The Birthplace to deliver her baby girl.

“I almost felt like I was able to have a home birth experience in the hospital”

Once Shatken-Stern was deep into labor, she transitioned to a birthing tub. Grateful for this option, which she advocates for as a powerful tool for natural pain management, she relied on her husband to help her relax through the pain. One of the primary philosophies at The Birthplace is that labor should not be rushed, and she was grateful to have trusted, comforting colleagues to help her through her journey.

“I think I was really fortunate,” Shatken-Stern said of her experience, “I almost felt like I was able to have a home birth experience in the hospital; it was very familiar to me, and comfortable, and I was surrounded by people that I know well, that I trust. And Adam provided such great labor support, I was so impressed. He really helped me get through it. In general I know that the Birthplace is a really great place to give birth. All of us that work there, we know that what we have is really special.”

Shatken-Stern has sound advice for the expectant mothers she works with: “If you want to have a good birth, the work is often in the very beginning when you’re finding out who is going to care for you. Surround yourself with people that you trust and put yourself in their hands, and then when you’re in the birth, let it all go.”

About Her America: 50 Women, 50 States

Her America: 50 Women, 50 States is a digital content series filmed by an all-female team, documenting real women across the country. The women profiled in video, photography and audio come from America’s smallest towns to the largest cities.

Her America is a Lifetime® campaign that was inspired by the events of last year,” said Lifetime® Editor-in-Chief Lea Goldman. “Like the rest of America, we were overwhelmed by the noise coming out of the election. There was so much talk about women – how little media and entertainment knew and understood so-called ‘real women,’ how many assumptions we made about them. And we thought, there are so many stories, so many sides that haven’t been represented, that deserve to be told. What if we crisscrossed the country with microphones and cameras and asked women, if you could tell your story with the world, what would you share? These are stories you definitely haven’t heard before, and definitely not from mainstream media."

Her America is also about the unique perspective of the women behind the cameras. The digital content series was produced, directed and shot by a team of more than 20 women. All photography was shot by female photographers hired to travel across the country to document the women featured.

See Proujansky's full photo essay on Her America.