Baby biz booming in Crown Heights

Doula Rochel Vail: "Older generation had 8-10 kids. Today, it's only 6."

rochel vail 88 (photo credit: )
rochel vail 88
(photo credit: )
Rochel Vail's most memorable summer vacation took place in 1981 in upstate New York when she delivered a baby all alone, with no training, in the bathroom of the Ramapo service area off the Gov. Thomas E. Dewey Thruway. Vail, 24 years old at the time, had piled into her old car with her husband and three children and was driving her pregnant friend, who had gone into labor, back to the city from a summer vacation, so that the friend could give birth with the help of her doctor. "At one point, we stopped so she could use the bathroom, and as soon as we got in the bathroom, she said, 'The baby's coming now!' So I just stood there with my hands open, and I caught." Vail, now 50, described that moment as the most incredible thing she had ever seen in her life. Her four-year-old son, who had been waiting for his mother outside the gas station bathroom, said, "Wow, babies come from the bathroom!" Back in her $50 jalopy, Vail could think of nothing else; she had to do this again. After returning home, she decided to become an emergency medical technican (EMT). She took the certification exam and passed in 1984, taking a class once a week with other Orthodox women in Flatbush. "Emergency births are part of what I saw as an EMT, so I became chummy with doctors and I made friends with the people at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, and they said I could hang around the birth ward and help out with deliveries," she said. Vail then began accompanying her sisters to their births, and then her friends, and then her friends' friends. Finally she officially became a doula by taking a course with the organization Doulas of North America, and has attended almost 1,200 births. "Doula" translates to "woman's caregiver" in ancient Greek, and that sums up Vail's services to the women she helps. Although she is not a nurse and cannot administer drugs to a woman in labor, she does position techniques and massage, and provides emotional support to the mother, whether it is her first or 10th child. She eventually hooked up with a team of doctors and midwives at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, to whom she still brings her clients. Her mentor, Jackie Kushner, then a midwife at Beth Israel, taught Vale that birth is a very natural process, and that doctors and midwives don't deliver babies; they catch. "When I work with patients, I get comments like, 'What are you, exactly?'" Vail said. The baby business is booming in the Crown Heights Lubavitch community of 14,000, and has been for decades. Lubavitch women usually marry around the age of 20 to a man in his early 20s, and the couple starts to have babies nine months later. The average first-time mother that Vail works with is 21 years old. "The older generation had more children," Vail lamented. "Most of my friends have between eight and 10 children. Nowadays, unfortunately, the average is around six children." Because she teaches first aid and CPR at Bais Rivka, the main girls' high school in Crown Heights, most young mothers already know Vail when the time comes to give birth just a few short years later, and therefore feel comfortable with her. "We have close-knit families here," Vail said, explaining how women get informed about pregnancy and prenatal care. "You go to your mother or mother-in-law when you have questions. A lot of girls call me for advice. My phone never stops ringing." Advice Vail doles out includes eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water and visiting a doctor after six to eight weeks of pregnancy. That doctor's visit does not include a sonogram for girls in Crown Heights, however. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the revered spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement, decreed that pregnant women should only have sonograms if the woman is sick or something is unusual in the pregnancy. Sonograms "just to see the baby," "just to make sure everything is okay," or that are "just routine" are prohibited. The Rebbe never gave his reason when he made this proclamation decades ago, Vail said, but she pointed out that recent studies have suggested that sonograms can affect the development of the fetal brain. Once such study, led by a Yale neurologist and published in August 2006, found a link between the two in mice, but other researchers said that pregnant women should still have sonograms for medical reasons. Vail carries her own makeshift doula kit around in her purse at all times. It includes Johnson's Baby Lotion, an iPod and speakers in case the mother wants music, Tylenol, Advil, lavender oil and an extra hair covering - married women must have their hair covered in public at all times, even during childbirth. "I carry everything a person might need to go through labor. And I provide a lot of emotional and physical support," she said. She helps out with births at hospitals, birthing centers and even in homes. "I think most women are scared of having a baby, especially if it's the first one. It's something they want to do, but it's a huge unknown to them. All they know is that it's going to hurt." Vail said she is known as the "Human Epidural." She will rock back and forth with the delivering mother while embracing her from behind. "If you move with your body when you're in labor and go with what your body tells you, it will go much easier. Lying down during labor is cruel and unusual punishment. A woman should walk around, maybe have a hot shower, until she is dilated at least 10 centimeters." Vail should know; she delivered her own baby at the hospital over a decade ago. "She was my last one. I was 41 years old and she was baby number 10. As I pushed out my daughter, the doctor guided my hands onto either shoulder and I pulled her out myself, bringing her onto my chest. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life." She often drives the delivering mother and her husband to the hospital when she goes into labor; most young couples in Crown Heights don't own cars. Since she is a certified EMT, she switches on the flashing lights and blares the siren in her outfitted maroon minivan. On the speedometer of her car, Vail has affixed tiny pictures of all 10 of her children and her four grandchildren. "When I'm speeding to the hospital, I see their pictures right next to how fast I'm going and I remember to slow down a little," she said. "Besides, what's the worst that could happen? I deliver the baby in the car? Been there, done that."