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Himmelfarb Headlines: Faculty Profile - Interview with Suzan Ulrich, Director; Nursing and Midwifery Education

Faculty Profile - Interview with Suzan Ulrich, Director; Nursing and Midwifery Education

Faculty Profile

Himmelfarb Library continues this feature in our newsletter that lets us become better acquainted with our friends and colleagues at the George Washington University. In this issue, we learn more about Suzan Ulrich, Director: Nursing and Midwifery Education.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and about the work you are currently engaged in?
I have been a nurse since 1976 and a Nurse-Midwife since 1983 involved in both clinical practice and education throughout my career. My first position was as a nurse in labor and delivery. I then began teaching maternity nursing to BSN students. I became a midwife and ran a variety of midwifery services including the North Shore Birth Center in Beverly Massachusetts. This small cottage on the grounds of Beverly Hospital offered families a home like space to give birth without the many interventions typically used in labor and delivery units. The families were the decision makers in their care and it was a joy to be present at a birth especially when children were attended the births of their siblings. I moved back into academia and taught nurse-midwives in a distance learning program for 13 years and was passionate about increasing the midwifery workforce. I served a Dean of Nursing at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul MN and taught in an online Doctor of Nursing Practice program before joining GW Nursing. I have been the Director of Midwifery Education at GW Nursing since July 2022. Both the school and the University have embraced me and the new midwifery program with consistent and strong support for this crucial new initiative.

What inspired you to work in your field?
I grew up always wanting to be a nurse. I guess I read too many Cherry Ames books and watched too many episodes of Dr. Kildare. I was excited to begin my nursing studies but fainted the first day I was on the medical surgical unit realizing I did not like sick people. As I continued in my studies I was a bit unsure until I started my maternity rotation. I was thrilled because maternity nurses took care of health women having babies. My maternity instructor was amazing and I knew I wanted to be just like her someday. My first position was in labor and delivery and I was where I belonged. I pursued a master’s degree in maternity nursing and delved into the experience of pregnancy and becoming a mother learning how important attention and support are for women to have a healthy pregnancy and also to become a mother. I began teaching nursing students and taught them how to support their patients. But my students were frustrated because the patients would ask for certain things during their pregnancy or the birth but the obstetricians would not permit many of these simple requests. This also frustrated me. Then I discovered that midwives existed in the US and decided immediately to became a midwife. As a midwife, I provide patients and their families with the kind of pregnancy and birth care they desire. I love being a midwife humbling participating in that most precious moment when a baby is born into the world and a new family is created.

What brought you to GW?
I was at a point in my career where I wanted to return to my passion for making more midwives! When I learned about the opportunity to be the Director of Midwifery Education at GW Nursing and create a new midwifery program I jumped at the chance.

What is your favorite aspect of your work?
Creating a midwifery program is an opportunity to shape maternity care in the US which needs a radical change of perspective from fear based, technological birth to individualized, compassionate care that promotes normal physiologic pregnancy, birth, and lactation and addresses the social determinants of health. It is imperative that midwifery programs teach students about community birth and the birth center model of care which is the place for the practice of midwifery. Our program will focus on community birth and we hope all students will experience out of hospital birth because it is transformative. Students will participate in hospital births because that is where most births occur, and it is the right level of care for complicated childbirth with the availability of necessary interventions in collaboration with the maternity care team.

You have been appointed Director of the newly-launched and pre-accredited Nurse-Midwifery program at GW. Could you share about this?
It has been a whirlwind developing the program, structuring the program plan, designing the curriculum, aligning the courses with the Core Competencies for Basic Midwifery Education, and completing the self-study and site visit for pre-accreditation by the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education. We received pre-accreditation in August 2023 just one year after I came to GW Nursing. It was a labor of love for me because I enjoy curriculum development and the precision and detail needed for successful accreditation. Sharing this work over the past year with the other midwifery faculty member Assistant Professor Dr. Tarnisha Hemphill has made it fun and exciting because I have done this for many years and Dr. Hemphill is a novice so sees things through a different lens. We complement each other perfectly with my administrative experience and birth center perspective and her full scope hospital-based practice with a population often neglected by the health care system. Our collaboration produced a stellar midwifery program that meets the needs of adult learners, is rigorous, and shines a light on respectful maternity care.

What has been your most memorable moment and greatest professional challenge?
One experience that changed my career and heart as a midwife was my last semester of midwifery school which was completed at the North Shore Birth Center. Previously, I was a labor and delivery nurse and during my midwifery program at Georgetown we attended births at DC General Hospital. My perspective on birth was limited until I observed the midwifery attended births at the birth center. Seeing birth outside the hospital was a revelation to me showing birth as an intimate and normal physiologic process that should be honored. I realized much of the care in hospitals disrupted the laboring family and put the attention on routines instead of the needs of the mothers. I had the privilege of learning the art of midwifery from three amazing midwives, Joan Richards, Fran Ventre, and Debbie Black who met the needs of each mother and family supporting them in whatever they needed and desired for their birth. Care was compassionate and individualized. I became a fierce advocate for birth centers.

Years later as the Director of the North Shore Birth Center, my biggest challenge was keeping the birth center open and operating. The NSBC was owned by Beverly Hospital causing some issues because there was opposition to the birth center from the doctors and nurses who were attending births at Beverly Hospital. Part of it was competition for patients which translates into follow the money. More deeply it was the belief that hospital birth was best and birth centers were on the fringe. This is interesting because before the 1950 most everyone was born at home. Moving birth to the hospital changed the power structure placing the hospital and doctor in charge instead of the family and the midwife. I had to be creative to keep the birth center open and with the support of the families served by the birth center I was successful. I left the birth center in 2000 and am very sad to say that the hospital closed it last year after over 40 years of operation. The families and midwives are working to open a new center not owned by hospital. I am hoping they are successful in providing this model of care for families.

What library resources or services have you found to be the most useful?
I worked in the library at Duquesne University for two summers when I was an undergraduate and have a great appreciation for libraries and librarians.  I have been amazed at the depth and breadth of the Himmelfarb Library. It seems to have a subscription to every journal that I need giving me immediate digital access. The instant messages to a librarian when you are in the midst of a search are very helpful. I had the pleasure of partnering with Rachel Brill, the Reference and Instructional Librarian to teach and support the students in my Evidence Based Practice course on conducting productive literature searchers. Having the Librarian in the course is so beneficial for students.

How do you spend your free time? (or What do you do to relax?)
I live with my husband on a 20-acre vineyard of concord grapes, apple orchard, and stream with a waterfall on the shore of Lake Erie. It is harvest time now so I have been canning applesauce from the wonderful old apple tree that has the best tasting apples. Soon I will be making concord grape jam using the pulp and the skins of the grapes. It is delicious.

What advice would you give to a new faculty member just starting at GW?
Let people know what you need. The faculty, staff, and administration at GW Nursing and the University have enthusiastically supported the development of the new midwifery program and gone above and beyond to create, market, and launch the program. Talk to everyone and you will find allies to support you and your development as an academician. Seek out a mentor whose passion aligns with yours and grow that relationship. Enjoy the people because they are the best part of GWU.

Director's Desk, Laura Abate
Suzan's vineyard