Barely 13 hours old, Elora Etches watched curiously and contentedly the new world around her.
The tiny baby girl looked out from under a teal knit cap atop a healthy head of dark brown hair, all 6 pounds of her safely snuggled in mom Kisha's arms. Elora was born Monday at 5:30 p.m. and was the 100th baby to come into the world at Missoula's Birth Center.
"She mostly likes to lay around and look around," said Kisha, sitting next to her husband Tate.
Both were still exhausted from the previous day's events.
The all-natural birth center and women's care clinic has found a strong client base two years since it opened in its latest incarnation. It's been so busy that the clinic is set to expand in the coming year, adding another birthing suite to the space in the converted house it operates on 39th Street.
Jeanne Hebl is the certified nurse midwife who runs the clinic and is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week as expectant moms come to her for an alternative to hospital births.
The alternative is something that women crave, said Birth Center practice manager Angela Marassi.
It's not only a happy medium between a home birth and hospital birth, but also a less expensive alternative. A natural birth at the center costs about half as much as a hospital birth, Marassi said. Families can have the experience in a home-like environment under the supervision of Hebl and a birthing assistant. Families often stay just a few hours after the babies are born.
The center has one full-time clinic nurse and is in the process of adding a midwife.
Kisha and Tate Etches chose the Birth Center because it offered a more comfortable, all-natural birth, with much of the labor endured at home. Kisha had her first daughter at the original Birth Center on Reserve Street four years earlier, and came back when she found out she was expecting Elora.
That version of the Birth Center was founded by Dr. Lynn Montgomery in 2006, but closed after the doctor's sudden and unexpected death in 2008. The center was unable to find a replacement for Montgomery, and was leased to Community Medical Center as clinic space. The second version of the Birth Center opened early in 2009 and began deliveries in April of that year.
Hebl, who worked with Montgomery when he founded the original clinic, continued work as a midwife, but calls for a birth center option kept coming. After the original Birth Center closed, Marassi said she was constantly flooded with phone calls from mothers hoping to find a place to have their babies. The community outpouring of support for an alternative gave the clinic's team the push to open the current location.
Getting started was slow, Hebl said, but once the clinic was accredited and insurance companies signed on, the clients have rolled in.
"It's not been easy," Hebl said. "There have been many times I wanted to close and do something different, but with all the positive feedback and desire to have something like this, it's kept me going."
The center not only guides expectant mothers, but also provides all kinds of women's health services, including an on-site lactation specialist, Jennifer Stires, who runs the Nursing Nook in the basement.
If problems arise during the birth, patients are quickly transported to Community Medical Center, and on-call doctors take the patients from there.
The collaboration that exists today is pleasant, Hebl said, although that wasn't always the case; she still isn't allowed to see clients in the hospital, as she once did. In October 2009, the hospital notified Hebl it would begin enforcing a ban on non-credentialed medical providers.
Hebl was hurt and stunned by the action, but from her clinic Tuesday said, "It's like it never happened."
She knows the center fulfills a need that must be filled, and allows her to follow her passion every day, she said before posing for a photo with baby Elora and family.
"I've had a lot of people come up to me in stores and hallways and say, ‘I'm so glad you're here,' " Hebl said. "How can I stop after people tell me that?"