'Playing the hand you're dealt'

Saturday November 3, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Dawn Kersula did not intend to be a perinatal specialist and lactation consultant at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She didn't dream of teaching Lamaze classes, or leading new parent support groups, or becoming a nurse working the night shift on the maternity ward.

She didn't know, back when she was a kid in the Chicago area dreaming of being an ice skater or singer or dancer, that one day she'd remember a new dad talking about his new baby at a Lamaze class reunion.

"The baby had a birthmark that wasn't just a birthmark," Dawn says, sitting in her office down he hall from the hospital's Birthing Center.

"It was a sign of something much more serious, something quite wrong with the baby's circulatory system."

Her voice, capable of pealing, earthy laughter and delighted exclamations, softens and deepens. It makes room for the memory.

"He said, ‘I remember what Dawn told us in class, that in labor you have to play the hand you're dealt.'" She looks out the window, slides off her shoes.

"He said, ‘The hand we were dealt is to be the parents of our baby.'" Tears fill her eyes. Her throat tightens, and her body rises with the unexpected swell of feeling.

"He said, ‘We are meant to be his parents. We are here to love him.'"

Dawn laughs and cries, a little turn that loosens remembrance's clench.

"That was 20 years ago," she says. She's quiet for a second, then smiles sadly and happily at once. "You play the hand you're dealt."

Back in college, Dawn chose English Literature as the hand she was going to play. Always an enthusiastic and energetic person, she loved college, and she read and played and read more to her heart's full delight.

Along the way, she met and married her husband, a native of Bellows Falls. The young couple decided to settle there, Dawn having loved Vermont since her childhood summers at church camp not far from the town.

In 1981, seven months pregnant with her first child, Dawn took a Lamaze class. This, not English Lit, turned out to be the hand she was dealt.

"You could say that everything that's happened in my professional life goes back to that class," she says, laughing. (When Dawn laughs, her whole body participates. She leans forward and presses her palms to her knees, and her mouth curves up like the fast, soft "v" of a Monarch butterfly's wings.)

"I thought I might like to teach Lamaze. It had nothing to do with anything I'd done before!" she says. "But it turned out it takes several years to become an instructor."

In the meantime, one of the women from her own class called her after the babies were born.

Dawn had known this mother to be a capable, educated person, yet on the phone she was confused and unmoored, wracked with questions about life with a baby.

"So it was clear what I had to do. I had to start a mother's support group. So I did!" Dawn laughs again. "We met in the cellar of the Christian Family Circle Church in Bellows Falls, up to 20 moms at a time. Eventually we had to hire a babysitter."

People were drawn to Dawn's verve and clarity, her smart, empathetic heart, and her knack for explaining with apt metaphors the world of babies and parents, particularly breastfeeding.

Once she became a certified Lamaze instructor and a La Leche League leader, her own doctor asked if she would teach a Lamaze class for his patients. A few years later, she became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She was just the second such consultant in Vermont.

"I had two more children, too," she says. "One I carried with me in a Snugli to classes when I was getting my Lamaze certification."

She shakes her head, smiling, remembering the bustle, remembering her kids as little kids.

It was a good hand she'd played so far, filled with babies and breastmilk and moms who found solace and knowledge in her care. She did not think the next round would involve chemistry.

"It was 1993, and I was trying to see if I could work with BMH, but the only way to do that was to become an R.N." She slumps in mock disbelief. "Seriously, it had been years since I'd done any math or science, but it turned out I really, really liked it. It suited me. We can't live, literally, without our bodies doing chemistry every day."

Three years of nursing school brought Dawn closer to the mysteries of birth and babies that had captivated her so long ago, and in 1996, she was hired directly into the BMH Birthing Center.

"I did nothing but labor and delivery for a year," she remembers. "At night."

Over time, coaching new mothers in the art of breastfeeding -- or formula feeding when, as Dawn puts it, the fluid needs to come from somewhere else but the love still comes from the parent -- became her signature skill. Along the way, she helped moms in that tender, hard postpartum time learn more generally to care for and fall in love with their babies, and she became precisely attuned to the health needs of the babies themselves. She served as president of the Vermont Lactation Consultants Association from 1996 to 2012, and she was officially named Perinatal Specialist at BMH in 1998.

She also grew to understand even more deeply that birth happens in the context of a woman's whole life, how past and present trauma can influence pregnancy and labor, how a traumatic labor can result in stress that affects the mother for years. When she tried to research the subject, she found scant existing literature.

"So it was clear what I had to do. I had to get a Master's degree in developmental psychology. I had to conduct my own little study." She smiles.

"So I did."

As her career expanded, Dawn became a resource not just for new mothers, but a mentor for nurses as well. She regularly travels the country to help teach nurses and other health care professionals how to support breastfeeding moms and babies.

She grins. "Yeah, boob whisperer to mama whisperer to nurse whisperer. It's the best job in the world."

In her 60s now, her kids long grown and living big lives of their own, Dawn isn't sure what hand she'll be dealt next.

"Oh goodness," she says. "I think I have a book in me. I have a couple of ideas. And being able to travel and teach is very sweet part of my life now, because I've learned a lot. I have experience, and thorough knowledge of the relevant research, to share with others doing this work."

Dawn finds her shoes and handbag, whirling in easy motion as she gets ready to take two of her grandsons to a waterpark in Lake George. Whatever does come next for her, she's ready to play.

Just outside the Birthing Center, Dawn stops. She smiles, and she pushes open the door.

"There's a new mom I want to talk to," she says. "Just something I need to whisper in her ear."


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