Program allows Molokai mothers to deliver on home island

Prenatal care is not always easy to come by on Molokai, an island with a population of about 7,500 people, but the Women’s Health Center at Molokai General Hospital is taking steps to make care for expectant moms a priority.

The center is the island’s only facility for women to deliver their babies.

Last month, the center received a $133,232 grant from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs to fund a new prenatal program to focus on promoting care in the first trimester of pregnancy. The grant will allow the hospital to hire a staff member for at least two years to coordinate group visits for experienced mothers to mentor first-time moms through their pregnancies, according to an announcement from the hospital.

“Here on Molokai, when you have kids, they are going to be together for the next 18 years,” Women’s Health Center Manager Punahele Alcon said. “They’ll be in the same school, on the same sports teams; (group visits are) a good chance to start a good foundation.”

The group visits are a part of the new prenatal program, which will start July 1. The program is “100 percent voluntary,” according to Alcon. Women may still opt for private one-on-one sessions with their midwives, who provide the majority of women’s health services on the island.

The hospital adopted its unique midwifery model in 1985. In it, most of the perinatal care is provided by certified nurse midwives, not doctors. The program, overseen by Dr. Eesha Bhattacharyya, an obstetrics/gynecologist, gives Molokai residents the option to deliver low-risk pregnancies on their home island.

Women deemed “high-risk deliveries,” or who wish to receive an epidural during labor, are usually transferred to providers on other islands such as Maui or Oahu.

Kaunakakai resident Jen Ainoa said that giving birth on Molokai – without an epidural or any painkillers – was one of the best experiences of her life.

“I loved the intimate setting. Our midwife became like friend and family,” the mother of three said. “It was like having an aunty there with you. . . . You don’t feel like you’re just a number waiting in line.”

The Women’s Health Center provides prenatal care to more than 100 women each year. While the majority of pregnant women opt to deliver at larger hospitals on Maui or Oahu, about 40 babies are delivered each year on-island, according to Alcon.

Ainoa said that she is grateful for the opportunity to give birth to her now-5-year-old son, Ekolu, on Molokai.

“I know it sounds silly, but we wanted this to be a Molokai child. My husband loves to say his son was born and raised on Molokai,” she said.

“When I had my first child (in a Texas hospital), I felt drugged with all the meds,” she said. “With a natural delivery, your endorphins kick in. It’s a wonderful, excited feeling. You feel like you could climb a mountain. . . . That’s what it’s supposed to feel like.”

She added that while most hospitals will allow only one family member to be present during the delivery, the midwives at the health center allowed both her husband and her mom to be by her side during her labor.

“It was very, very wonderful because I needed them both,” Ainoa said. “They (the midwives) made it seem like it was a natural thing that would happen at home, not a sterile thing.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at