PART III

This will be the third and final installment of the story of the unique woman – and family-centered birthing practice that developed in Cottage Grove.

Who could say what the magic was that brought the people together who guided it just when conditions were right to allow it to grow, bloom, and send seeds out into other communities. But it was a special time and sent ripples out from this small town.

The reputation and prestige that had been earned by the hard work of the “Small Wonder” Birth Center team and the Cottage Grove Hospital with its “Baby Friendly” designation was drawing not only patients from far outside its borders, but practitioners as well. 

Dr. Nick Gideonse decided to come to Cottage Grove Hospital because of Barbara Kaye’s sterling reputation. “I wanted to work in a practice where midwifery was the norm, not the exception,” as recorded in Cottage Grove Historical Society’s “Golden was the Past, the story continues.”

The nearly decade-long effort to be certified a “Baby Friendly” hospital was not only an intense self-education quest but it generated quite a bit of interest. “It went beyond Cottage Grove, and we wanted to take these concepts and methods beyond our community. And there was tremendous interest from other places. We knew no boundaries and the sharing was immense and I did a lot of teaching,” Desiree Nelson Larson said.

But while things were going very well with the Birth Center, not all was well in Cottage Grove and towns like it whose economies depended primarily on the logging industry. In the early 1980s a number of factors led to decreased employment and wages. A severe recession, closing of smaller mills, increasing automation, competition with cheaper lumber from southern states and Canada, and federal restrictions, left a lot of families suddenly without a livelihood. Jobs connected to woods work and mills, that had been, for generations, a way to make a living, vaporized leaving many unprepared and without the skills to make a career change.

The despair of this situation led to increased family stress and drug and alcohol abuse. Combining this with sudden poverty, low education levels and mental health issues, this was the recipe for child abuse and domestic violence. Another troubling trend was teen pregnancy. 

“As a team, we encountered these huge mental health issues in our patients. Pregnant women were in a very vulnerable spot and it was very clear that we had a crisis out there. During prenatal checkups we would also find ourselves assessing substance abuse, particularly meth, in our patients. In trying to help teens and women to have a healthy baby we met our clients where they were, without judging, just looking for a way to make for the best possible outcomes for the mother and her child,” Larson said.

Cottage Grove Hospital hired social worker Diane Hazen to help case manage women with the Management Of Maternity Services (MOMS) program, which included additional home visits and support for prenatal care. She also assisted other patients covering birth to death with the needs in their lives. They also visited as a teaching team to help other hospitals develop similar services.

With this awareness of a societal problem midwives and birth center staff wanted to start doing something to help make things better. That is when Dian Missar stepped up.

Missar had a background in social work from working in a settlement house in Chicago and also had participated in Red Cross relief efforts. She had come to Cottage Grove with her husband Chuck to become a part of the Cerro Gordo community.  

“She had a saying that typified her, ‘There is power in partnerships.’ Part of her personality was very forceful and she was very good at cajoling people into doing things. She wanted to see what could be done would be done in Cottage Grove,” Chuck said.

In 1987 Dian began to connect people by having morning meetings that went on for 20 years. She would come early to the community center to make coffee and would bake treats. These breakfast meetings included Lane County health nurses Barbara Kaye Bonillas, Desiree and other medical staff, Diane Hazen, school personnel, volunteers, and social workers. In fact anyone who she was aware of that was working on the same problem – children, family welfare, and women’s mental health – were pulled into the meetings by her quiet but strong persuasion. It was not just enough to bring a baby into the world, this group wanted them to flourish.

One aspect they took head-on was the 10-15 pregnant and parenting high school students who were dropping out of Cottage Grove High School each year. There was a stigma at school for the young mothers and no services to accommodate students with infants at school. 

A group incorporated into Parent Partnership in 1988 with the purpose of strengthening parenting skills and healthy family and child development in rural south Lane County. Barbara Kaye CNM, Ruth Ackley RN, Gay Kennedy, and Dian Missar were among the original board members.

Starting out with word of mouth mentoring by volunteers at a monthly support group, soon there were biweekly activities at the high school. In 1989 some space was found at the CGHS and Gay Kennedy, a tenured home economics teacher at Lincoln Middle School, volunteered to teach daily parenting classes for a small group of teens. She soon left her faculty position to volunteer full time with the new Parent Partnership.  

The successes of these baby steps in bringing dropouts back to school led to CGHS Principal Ed Otten offering space (school theater’s dressing rooms), and the Lane County Commission some funds. This became the “First Steps Child Care Center.”

In the fall of 1991 the Parent Partnership saw 34 young parents enrolled to finish their degrees, or prepare for the GED with parenting classes and child care.  

In the wake of some horrific child-abuse cases in 1991, many of the same people who had been involved with the monthly meetings came together to focus more intensely on child-abuse issues and offering support and understanding to the families under stress.  

The group discovered a very successful program close by in Eugene’s Relief Nursery. Winning a federal grant meant that a similar program could be developed and tailored to meet Cottage Grove’s needs. 

Members of the local healthcare community, social service agencies, churches, business leaders, the Cottage Grove Rotary and Kiwanis clubs all pulled together to make this dream a reality. By August of 1994 the Family Relief Nursery began offering services at an area church and by 1997 had put down roots in a building of their own.

The staff at the Small Wonder Birth Center continued to provide some of the best birthing experience in the state. They also were active in the collaborative community work in helping insure the babies they guided into the world had the best chance to survive and thrive.

In the larger world of medicine there were forces that were beyond the scope of Cottage Grove’s success story. Hospitals were merging and becoming larger bureaucratic behemoths. Money, always an issue, was driving this development. Smaller community hospitals were fast becoming an endangered species.  

When the news was announced that the popular Cottage Grove Hospital was slated for closing in 1998 citizens rallied and fought a spirited battle, but were ultimately not successful in saving this community treasure.

One of the main reasons for people’s passion was the unquestioned success of the Birth Center. Many of the support letters written to try to save the hospital focused on the writer’s positive birthing experience at the Small Wonder Birth Center. One of the most vocal advocates was the Cottage Grove Sentinel editor and publisher, Jody Rolnik, a proud mother of a birth center child.

Unfortunately the day came on Aug. 27, 1998, when the hospital doors were locked but not before three last-minute births occurred at the little hospital that could. When the new PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Health Center opened in October 2003, it did so without an operating room, effectively eliminating the possibilities of having birth and delivery services in the replacement hospital.

Sadly, this ended a long history of innovations in childbirth in what was a unique and special part of our community’s history of being among the first in births, blazing a trail in Oregon for women to have the birth they wanted. It is a small comfort that many of the ripples that went out of Cottage Grove are still reverberating in the world beyond. 

Contact Dana at [email protected]