October Mom of the Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we decided that our Mom of the Month should have a connection to this month’s important topic. So, our mom(s) of the month are Susan (AKA Nana) Gail Crist, mother to both Misty Ward, Midwife, and Heather Brown, Office Manager at Brookhaven. Cookie (Lily) Fulk, mother of Susan, grandmother of Misty and Heather is our second mom of the month.

Cookie is a two time breast cancer survivor and mother of five.  Although Cookie gave birth to five children she has zero recollection of any of her deliveries.  Back in those days mothers were given a cocktail of narcotics that conveniently caused a temporary amnesia so that they never would know what they had gone through. One of her life regrets is that she has no memories of those first few precious hours bonding with her children. Each arrived at her bedside bathed, bundled, and bottle fed the day after they had been born. Knowing the vast difference in how her great grandchildren came into this world has helped her become a strong advocate for midwifery care. Susan was her second daughter, born January 31, 1958.

Susan(Nana) had four daughters. Her first daughter, Tanya was born premature on June 16th 1974 weighing just over 2lb. Tanya arrived in a sterile military hospital in Germany where her (our) father was stationed in the Army. Susan was only 16 years old. Tanya died on June 22nd 1974, having never felt the warmth of her mother’s touch.  Susan’s second daughter was born still in 1975 at approximately 24 weeks gestation.  On July 23rd, 1976 she finally gave birth to a healthy term daughter, Heather Brown. Misty arrived on December 10th, 1980.  Although we do not have Susan here to share her birth stories we have heard them and her heartbreak surrounding them. She told us of lying on a hard thin metal table, being all alone, and terrified.  Needless to say her memories and views of birth are far from the ecstatic and empowering births we strive to provide to our families at Brookhaven.  So it came as no surprise that she was far from thrilled when her daughters chose natural births with MIDWIVES and to make it worse Misty decided to give birth at her house in a bathtub!  She thought she had raised us better than this!  And to top it off we fed our babies breast milk from our bodies! Something she never even attempted as a mother.

On May 15th 2005 Misty gave birth to her son Jonah at Nana’s home.  Misty made this decision based on the fact that Nana had a huge garden tub with fancy jets and Brookhaven wasn’t open yet.  During the delivery Nana paced nervously and kept herself busy bringing Misty, her birth team and wonderful midwives drinks, chocolate covered strawberries, and wiping off counters that were already clean.  At one point Misty threatened to kick nana out of her own home if she looked at her with that pitiful concerned face again!  Thankfully the birth went fast and smooth and soon Misty was holding her sweet little boy.  Nana was in awe. She sat down holding her grandson swaddled in one of her fluffy towels and only an hour old, in her home, in her bathroom. And she saw the joy, and celebration that she never had before.  From that day forward Susan Gail Crist became an advocate of out of hospital birth with midwives. She told Misty later that after watching the tender care that she had received during the birth made her realize that she herself years before “ was robbed of that experience! All women deserve to have that!”.

Soon after Jonah’s birth Misty began her midwifery apprenticeship.  For five long years she studied, traveled, and attended births in multiple settings including Africa, the DR, and El Paso.  While she attended workshops and trained, Nana took care of the grandkids. She may not have ever been a midwife but she was on call for literally hundreds of births. And even at 3am, she always answered the phone.

In September of 2009 Misty turned in all of her paperwork required to sit for the national midwifery exam being offered in February 2010. Nana was diagnosed with breast cancer two months later. She was a private person and later said she “didn’t want to ruin Christmas” so it was about a month later (January 2010) before she broke the news to family.

The next few months were a whirlwind. Nana had dozens of doctors visits, huge decisions to make regarding options, and a double mastectomy looming ahead. She ended up having her surgery on the opening of the new RMH. There was a thrill about being one of the first surgeries to take place in the new state of the art facility. However the thrill quickly wore off when the date changed last minute and after the surgery was finally complete the brand new system was down and her recover nurse frantically tried to order her the pain meds she so desperately needed.  After many failed attempts she was given the meds despite not having the proper orders.  Thankfully her nurse had more common sense than loyalty to a giant system.

Also during that time Misty was inspired through multiple serendipitous events to open a free standing birth center. A location was found and despite her illness Nana jumped into action supporting the endeavor in multiple ways including emotional support, attending meetings with lawyers and realtors, designers and contractors, and of course with childcare. Despite a request for some financial assistance with the center, Nana declined…or so she said. Shortly afterwards a distant family member approached Misty about investing in her birth center. Terms were settled and Brookhaven began to gestate.

On September 6th 2010 Brookhaven opened its doors to the public and began catching babies in our location and at home. During that first year Heather was much more than the office manager, she was also a birth assistant! At one point she even began her training to become a Certified Professional Midwife as Misty wanted a partner and who else could she trust as much as her sister? However the on call life was not for Heather and with the practice growing she had to dedicate more and more hours to the clerical, and financial side of Brookhaven.  Sometimes if Misty asks really nice Heather will still come in for a birth. : )

From 2010 until her death in 2017, Nana had three surgeries, dozens of rounds of Chemo and radiation, and hundreds of appointments and ER visits. While sitting at RMH getting her Chemo infusions she would often chat up the nurses and other patients about the work her daughters were doing right across the street. She would explain the transition of a newborn in a waterbirth and how gentle it was and how little they cried compared to land born babies. She would tell them about how her grandson was born in her own home. A few times while Misty sat with her during infusions she would have to stop her from telling too many dramatic stories about the overuse of cesareans in typical OB practices as Misty was acutely aware of the setting they were currently in. Nana rarely missed an opportunity to brag about her girls.

Nana also had other interests besides singing the praises of midwifery…

She was the church secretary at First Church of the Brethren in Harrisonburg, for almost 20 years.  She was also a dispatcher for Harrisonburg Police Department and retired in 1996.  She loved being outside in nature and tending to her gardens and pond with her grandchildren and also enjoyed interior design and working on her home which she designed and built in Bridgewater.  She was a hard worker, meticulously clean, and notoriously stubborn.  She was a shy woman that often times stayed home, preferably with the company of her grandchildren, whom she loved to spoil. (much to their mother’s chagrin)

Due to her rapid decline in health in late 2016 once her cancer spread to her bones and her lungs, Nana’s ,mother, grandma Cookie, did what no mother should have to do.  She moved into her daughters home and cared for her every need.  Cookie was with Nana day and night, laughing, crying, cooking, and running errands.  Keeping her company and helping her keep her medications in order for the last six months of her life.

The last three days of Nana’s life she was surrounded by family, in her own home, just like she wanted.  We have always said that we should leave this world the same way we should come into it. At HOME. With FAMILY. With LOVE.

Susan lost her battle with breast cancer on May 11th 2017 10:57pm.

…On May 25th 2017, at her post memorial service dinner the “distant family member” that had loaned Misty the money to open Brookhaven revealed the truth. All of the money that had been loaned to her had come from Nana.  Brookhaven will forever be grateful for the enormous contributions that Nana made towards Better Births…