by Valerie Vickerman Runes
“I can’t do it. Valerie, I CAN’T DO IT!”
“Yes you can Beth. It’s OK. You can do this.”
Reassuring words become a habit after a while. The right words said in the right way at the right time.
“Reach down and touch your baby’s head.”
A tentative touch. A startled look.
“IT’S SO CLOSE!”
“Sure it is, Beth. Right there. Now on the next contraction, a gentle push, OK?”
Slowly the baby’s head slides out of Beth’s body. I like this part the best, I think. It is familiar territory. I know the way things should look, the way things should feel. It is a moment trapped in time — the baby between life inside and life outside.
“OK, now with the next contraction, you can push out the rest of the baby.”
The baby spirals a bit now to release the top shoulder. I lift the head a bit to help with the posterior shoulder, and the baby slides into my hands. Sometimes at that instant I glance quickly at the parents to see what they are making of all this. They are awed. Stunned. I look back at the baby, because if I don’t I will get teary-eyed, and for right now I want to keep it together.
“Reach down and take your baby, Beth!”
Beth and her husband reach down simultaneously to gather the baby up to her breast.
“Oh! My baby, my baby, mybabymybabymybaby!!”
The baby cries briefly, then quiets. She gazes into her mother’s eyes.
The towel around the baby is unwrapped a bit, and the parents look between the baby’s legs.
“It’s a GIRL!”
“Does she have a name?”
“Chloe. Chloe Abigael.”
By the time I leave their house it is 3am, and I step outside into the quiet summer night. I am a midwife. The State has made me a criminal.
They refer to themselves as “The Department”, as though the meaning is clear. And I suppose in the context of a Cease and Desist Order or a Motion or a Complaint, it is clear. The Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. A nice, bureaucratically benign title for an arguably necessary state agency. I suppose someone has to regulate doctors and nurses and embalmers and nail technicians and wrestling officials.
When I started delivering babies almost twenty years ago, I never even thought about The Department. It certainly never occurred to me that I should be afraid of them. Once in a while during the early 80’s they would hunt down a midwife or two, and when it was reported in the newspapers, some official would make a nasty comment about “hippies returning to strange folkways” and how he “didn’t see them filling in their porcelain toilets and using the backyard”. But the "captured" midwife wasn't me, and even though my own practice grew out of the 1983 arrest of my preceptor, I believed myself untouchable. My motives were pure and my vision was holy, and I would simply snicker at each action of The Department and go back to delivering babies in bedrooms.
Those of us who were midwives and those who wanted to be midwives would get together and discuss birth. We would read our textbooks and practice taking blood pressures and talk for hours about malpresentations and prenatal complications and the various stages of labor. And we would attend births for the families who became our friends, doing whatever hocus-pocus was necessary to keep one step ahead of The Department. I could tell you stories from now until forever about various adventures and wonders and complications and miracles. I could tell you what it is like to stand at the edge of life, to see the magic unfold, and to feel the hand of God in a way that is clearer than almost anything else we can do.
My first Cease and Desist Order came a few weeks before I graduated from nursing school in 1998. It ordered me to stop “practicing medicine without a license”. “I don’t practice medicine. I am a midwife,” I wrote to the Department. Go away. Leave me alone. I was fearless. I drew cartoons mocking the Department and put them up on a website. I wrote letters, telling them that I had no intention of quitting.
But The Department was on a crusade and another Cease and Desist Order soon followed. This time I was ordered to "stop practicing midwifery".
"The State of Illinois does not regulate midwifery, and hasn't since 1965", my lawyer and I responded. Go away. Leave me alone.
They didn't. Early one morning the doorbell rang. My husband answered it, while "fearless" me stayed out of sight. Two investigators from The Department wanted to know if some recent newspaper quotes attributed to me were correct. I guess one of the advantages of being married to one's attorney is that he is always ready for a fight, even at 7am.
"You will make an appointment with my office during normal business hours", he told them. "I will not discuss this with you here and now!"
The Department's next action was to file a complaint against my nursing license, seeking its revocation for "acting beyond the scope of the Illinois Nurse Practice Act". We met with them. They offered a deal. I declined. They were wrong.
My hearing was seven days long. All the families and all the babies of my twenty-year practice were reduced to a witness list and a pile of evidentiary papers and seemingly endless motions and objections. It was long and hard, and I discovered that being fearless is a lot easier when you are not sitting in a courtroom ten feet away from The Department's team of attorneys. When one of them tossed a sample of my internet cartoons in front of me, I flinched a little. It had been suggested all along that my cartoons were evidence of my "unprofessionalism".
"What is THIS supposed to mean?" I was asked.
I hesitated for an instant and looked into the angry eyes of the attorney. Maybe I should repent. Maybe I should beg and grovel and plead for forgiveness. Maybe I should get up and run out of the courtroom and go home and hide under the bed.
"Well", I finally responded quietly. "Like any cartoon, I guess it means what you think it means. It was never my understanding that becoming a licensed nurse meant that I gave up my right to freedom of expression."
I glanced at my husband, who nodded slightly to me. We weren't going to win this one, and I knew I was never again going to work as either a midwife or a nurse.
"Ms. Runes has stated that she has been wanting to know since the mid-80's how midwifery is regulated in the State of Illinois", said The Department's attorney in her closing arguments. "Perhaps now she has her answer. We request that her nursing license be revoked."
A few months later I got the official notice that my license had been suspended indefinitely. I was also ordered to pay a $2500 fine and take a twelve-hour "ethics course". If I toe the line, be a good girl, follow all the rules, and concede to the tyranny of a regulatory agency run amok, well...then maybe, just MAYBE I can get my license back someday. Nah. I think I will take a pass. I will continue the court battles, but to paraphrase Groucho, I don't think I want to be part of a club that would have someone like me as a member. I am back to being at least a little fearless. At least for the moment.
Losing my nursing license saddens me a bit -- I worked really hard for it. But the loss is softened a little by the knowledge that because of me, some attorneys in some State office are going to have to work just a little bit harder to prove an unprovable point, to try to justify a statute that doesn’t exist and to make the unconstitutional acceptable. And I like knowing that those same attorneys know that I am not going to compromise and I am not going to give up and I am not going to give in. And I am not going to go away.
Valerie Vickerman Runes is a mother, a midwife, and an ex-nurse. She continues to be a perpetual thorn in the side of the State of Illinois, and with the help of her husband/attorney Ken, is waging a seemingly endless court battle with The Department.