Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

“It’s their dying; not yours.”

Ever heard of a doula?

Doula is an ancient Greek word that translates as “woman who serves.” Specifically, it’s come to mean someone who serves as a birth attendant, a person trained in childbirth who acts in support of a birthing mother. A doula provides knowledge, comfort, and an extra pair of hands — whether it’s to provide nourishment or massage, or help a mother find a comfortable position.

doula1As you may imagine, the modern “doula movement” started as a reaction to over-medicalization of the birth process in the U.S. Too much hospital, too many medical interventions, too much ‘invasiveness’ of what should be a joyous and miraculous time in a family’s life. The ‘movement’ began in the early 1970s. The interesting thing about doulas is that they have achieved widespread acceptance from the skeptical medical profession — there’s strong science showing that labor attended by doulas results in better outcomes — e.g. less use of epidural anesthesia, fewer c-sections, and improved infant mother bonding (i.e. successful initiation of breastfeeding).

One of my mentors in medical school, Dr. John Kennell, was instrumental in doing the research that showed how doulas make a positive impact.

My wife and I were lucky to have the births of both of our children attended by doulas, one near Boston and one in Chicago. Both doulas even came to our home after birth to check in on us and see what we needed.

Recently I was surprised to see the term doula used in conjunciton with the other end of life — death. A recent piece in the NY Times business section, in the “Shortcuts” column, discussed the emergence of doulas helping those that are dying ease the process.

It’s quite logical, really. Most of us are afraid of death — the article chronicles a few for whom there was little in the way of family or friend support. A person experienced in listening, attending, and just being present is a wonderful gift to anyone, but especially someone who knows they will die soon.

Some of the doulas mentioned in the piece come from the hospice world, others from the birthing side of life who wish to use their skills elsewhere. The article gives details on the financial considerations if one were to hire a doula (it’s in the Business section, after all) — but trust me, no one is profiteering in this type of work. These are folks in it for the meaning.


  1. Justine

    My husband and I were just talking about an idea I had (really, we were wondering whether this already exists), which in this context I will now call a “doula” for people with Alzheimer’s/dementia. (Really, I was starting from the idea of a nanny or au pere: why not have an au pere for your loved one who has dementia?) We know partners struggling to care for their loved ones and wonder whether there might be people (perhaps young, energetic people in their 20s with a desire to serve in this way and some training or relevant experience) one could bring into one’s household (full-time? part-time? live-in?) to help out and make it possible to both keep the person with dementia home and as comfortable as possible and to allow their partner/loved one to continue working and doing the other things that make their own lives meaningful and functional.

  2. Barbara Geffen

    Best piece you’ve done on this Blog. I missed that NYT article. Thanks for taking me there. I look forward to reading more of your own thinking, in your own words, posted here, not just linked to somewhere else you discussed it (e.g. a radio piece) or to someone else’s wisdom. You have much to say. Please say it here, so we can all read it and benefit from it together. Thank you.

  3. Roxanne


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