Brazen Woman 2006: Deva Burgess     

   Like many midwives of her generation, Deva became a midwife after having her first baby in the hospital. In 1970, at the time of her first pregnancy, she did not even know that midwives existed. She interviewed 30 doctors in the Bay Area just trying to find one who would “allow” her to birth naturally. She managed to do so because she rejected medications every single time the nurses came in and asked, and “left with a whole pocketful of pit.” But she did have a full enema, and her husband was not allowed in the room. They were told he could not enter because they had never had a tour of the hospital – despite the fact that the hospital did not offer tours.

   At the time, she says, no one knew anything. There were two books in the local library: Dr. Lamaze’s and Dr. Dick-Read’s. She traveled 60 miles for childbirth classes that did not really prepare her for labor. If she hadn’t been fortunate enough to have a quick birth she would surely have exhausted herself with the Lamaze breathing.

   Deva describes her first birth as the nightmarish “big insane hassle” of the 70s. Yet she came out of the experience blown away by how incredibly powerful birthing is. She hated to see it reduced to what it was in the hospital. She wanted women to have options. She knew that she never wanted to have another child in the hospital again.

   She moved to Hawaii when her first child was just three weeks old. A year later, while visiting her parents in Palo Alto, she came across the old Mexican midwives manual in a book store. It was the first time she realized that people were actually doing homebirths, and that information about homebirth was out there.

   When she became pregnant again she found a “long haired hippie” doctor who agreed to do prenatal care knowing she was planning to birth by herself at home. He wound up doing a postpartum check on them, and it was revolutionary for him. He began to attend homebirths, and had a thriving practice in Maui for years to come.

   Deva began her training with a midwife who was working with the Philippine community in Hawaii. While she was pregnant with her third child she returned to the Bay Area and began attending study groups with Raven Lang and Greg Troll. She also attended study groups with Don Crevey in Palo Alto and began assisting at births while there. She then moved up to Eureka to attend school. When the school closed, she moved to Redding, where she became trained as an EMT II and “studied her ass off” in midwifery. She sat the first round of CAM certification, became a CPM, and in 1995 got her LM.

   When she set up practice in Redding, Deva was on her own. There were no other midwives anywhere nearby. She practices within a seventy mile radius, which can mean drives over two hours long in this mountainous part of the state. The first year she lived in Redding she did 12 births. The second year she did 60 and in the two following years she attended 74 and 80.

   She reports that there really are no options for women in the area. There are no birth centers, just two hospitals doing deliveries and what she has seen of them is “gruesome”. The county hospital has a residency program, which means that if she transports, she is giving up care to someone with considerably less experience than she has. The residents are freaked out by birth, and, as very young doctors, they tend to be arrogant. There is a 90% epidural rate and probably a 70% cesarean rate.

   Women in the area are further limited in their options because many of them are low income. They can choose to travel to a birth center in Redbluff, where they can have a tub birth with a CNM. One of the midwives there used to do homebirths, and she reports that the center averages 30 births a month, so there is no time to sit with women and provide midwifery care. The epidural rate is 90%.

   Deva is a true frontier midwife, practicing in areas so remote that women who need transport may have to be evacuated by helicopter. She has had a number of assistants and she has just hired a new one recently. They are not easy to find, because they have to be willing to do births hours from the nearest hospital. It is a very different way of practicing midwifery than those who live in town.

   As a result, Deva has a very low transport rate. Partly because her clientele are very dedicated to homebirth – they know what their other, limited options are. Last year she transported 3 out of 39 births. One was a breech that the woman chose not to continue at home. The other two were both fetal demises. She is disturbed by how the women with the fetal demises were treated at the hospital. She reports that nurses didn’t want to be in the room with them. Hospital staff, who don’t know how to deal with death themselves, provided absolutely no support.

   Deva will do breeches and twins at home. She says she’ll have years without a breech and then suddenly have many. Last year she attended two. One was a grandmultip and the baby just slid out. The other was a primip who approached Deva because she did not want to have a cesarean. Deva bases her decision to attend these politically hot births on the motivation level of the mother. If a woman is insistent that she will absolutely not go to the hospital, then Deva would rather be there than have her birth unattended.

   Deva has been on the CAM board off and on. She attended the very first meeting that CAM ever had, and still has the list of attendees. Back then she would attend bi-monthly meetings in the Bay Area, and they would spend full days training each other. But since moving to Redding, her remote location has prevented her from becoming very involved. Most of the time she has no backup at all. She intended to attend this recent conference, in which she was presented the brazen woman award. But she had a baby birth that Saturday morning who needed a full resuscitation, so she stayed in town to keep checking on her. (Baby is now doing great.)

   Deva was arrested in 1982. They tried to prosecute her for practicing medicine without a license. When they could not get anywhere with that charge, they prosecuted her for perjury instead. She was receiving AFDC at the time, and appropriately reporting all of her income to social services. But she worked at a non-profit that she was authorized to sign checks for. Though the state could never prove that she wrote herself a single check from the agency’s account, they argued that because she had potential access to that money, she should be declaring it as part of her income. She went to jail for 18 months.

   While she was in jail, her children lived with her parents. She says that the whole thing was “absolutely crazy.” She thinks that she was targeted because she was doing so many births in one community – she was taking income away from the hospitals.

   Despite going to jail, she did not hesitate for a moment about continuing to be a midwife. When she got out, she “absolutely practiced again right away.”

   When asked if she did anything differently as a result of the ordeal, she replies that she began to do a lot more well-woman care. The health care she witnessed in the prison system was “so poor it was unbelievable.” So while inside, she began offering a lot of herbal and natural health care to the women she was with. Once out, she volunteered with a local women’s health clinic.

   Deva says that at the time of her arrest she was doing some women’s health care for an OB who introduced her to an organization called “quacks.” It was a group of doctors who had all been prosecuted on trumped up charges after the Medical Board decided to be rid of them. Unable to find any grounds for pulling their licenses, the board would turn to the IRS or other forms of investigation. Deva says that whenever we hear a midwife has been prosecuted we should always question where the charges came from. Midwives have been charged with things like possessing drugs and needles, and child abuse or endangerment, just because the state has no legitimate reason to make them stop practicing.

   She believes that this became even more of an issue once there was licensing because there were a lot more things the state could get you for. She chose to get licensed because she really believed that she would be able to bill Medi-cal. She expected that licensure would lead to more support from the medical community. But after 5 years as an LM, she had a doctor tell her that there was no such thing as licensed midwifery in California. She said, “I have a plastic card here that comes from the same place that yours does.”

   She says that at this point, doctors are no longer openly hostile to her if she transports. She doesn’t tolerate it anymore. She makes copies of her records and walks in and gives full report.

   Deva has been self sustaining as a midwife for 10 years now. She has been in the same community for so long that she is catching the babies of babies she caught. Last year she had five second generation births.

   There is one family in the area that she has attended 76 births for! Currently four of the cousins are pregnant and planning to have her attend. 

   Deva believes that we should sue the state of California for restraint of trade. She says that you can’t charge someone money to license them and then not allow them to practice once they are licensed! They need to either remove physician supervision or actually make it workable. She has a couple of doctor she consults with, but none will officially back her up.    

CAM celebrates the hard work and dedication of the awardee in midwifery activism. In no way should this award be construed as a determination of the midwife's skill nor as a recommendation to use her services.
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