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Life after birth: Duluth birth center midwife ending long career

Paula Bernini Feigal, midwife and owner of Morning Star Women's Health and Birth Center listens for a fetal heartbeat with expecting mother Gloria Carlson, of Duluth Wednesday. Feigal, is retiring, and she's put up her business for sale. (Clint Austin / / 4
Paula Bernini Feigal, a midwife and owner of Morning Star Women's Health and Birth Center talks about her experiences as a midwife. Feigal, is retiring, and she's put up her business for sale -- a business that lives inside a beautiful old mansion on East Superior Street. (Clint Austin / / 4
Morning Star Women's Health and Birth Center, on East Superior Street in Duluth. (Clint Austin / / 4
Paula Bernini Feigal, midwife and owner of Morning Star Women's Health and Birth Center checks the blood pressure of expecting mother Gloria Carlson, of Duluth Wednesday. Feigal, is retiring, and she's put up her business for sale. (Clint Austin / / 4

After being a part of 650 beginnings, it's time for this career to end.

Paula Bernini Feigal is reluctantly retiring as a midwife and selling Duluth's Morning Star Women's Health and Birth Center.

"The joy I feel when a mother meets her baby for the first time on the outside — nothing will be able to take that out of me," Bernini Feigal said.

But the always-on-call demand of the job was starting to affect her health and keep her from her family. The typical career of a birth center midwife lasts nine years, and Bernini Feigal has put in 20.

"It's work, but it's more than work. You don't punch in and out."

While there are several area midwives working in home births or at the hospitals, Bernini Feigal remains the only one operating a separate birth center in the Northland — until she finishes her final day in Duluth on April 15.

"I would very much love to see this legacy preserved. It's such a beautiful birth house," she said. "I'm excited to take these experiences, move on and open the space for a new midwife."

Getting here

Last Wednesday, Bernini Feigal sat in a quiet corner of a giant house and retraced the steps that led her to this point. Her words were carefully chosen, her voice calm and reassuring.

"I really feel tremendously blessed and in awe I was called to this profession all those years ago," she said. "You stand in the center of this ancient process and watch it, guide it and try not to interfere."

The late afternoon light reflected softly off the woodwork and decor of the Superior Street mansion that houses her business and her life and the storied starts of many others.

Of the nearly 650 babies Bernini Feigal has had a hand in delivering, 101 were born at Morning Star in Duluth.

"It's really amazing to hear the feedback years later, all the lessons they learned," Bernini Feigal said. "How a woman is treated during pregnancy and childbirth changes her outlook."

The licensed midwife first opened Morning Star in Menominee, Wis., in 1996. She later expanded to St. Louis Park and added the Duluth location, at 1730 E. Superior St., in 2013.

The other locations have closed in the past few years as Bernini Feigal's midwifery winds down. But her dedication to birth centers as the best option for the business of birth is as strong as ever.

"The birth center concept is not new, but it is the model of the future."

Natural births

Hospitals are absolutely the right choice for women who may have complications or special needs during pregnancy or labor, Bernini Feigal says, and birth centers only accept low-risk pregnancies.

For those who are wanting and able, though, the control and authority over the natural process of childbirth is the draw of this model.

"They really want midwifery care, really want to be heard and understood and respected in making their own decisions," Bernini Feigal. "The place for a natural birth that isn't a woman's home is a birth center."

A 2013 study in the Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health "demonstrates the safety of the midwifery-led birth center model of collaborative care as well as continued low obstetric intervention rates, similar to previous studies of birth center care," according to the journal. "These findings are particularly remarkable in an era characterized by increases in obstetric intervention and cesarean birth nationwide."

The American Association of Birth Centers says that such intervention is often unnecessary and expensive — though when it is needed it can save the lives of mothers and newborns.

Bernini Feigal says for low-risk births a birth center like Morning Star is the "most cost-effective." Prices range from $8,000 to $10,000, comparable to full services from a hospital; insurance through the state or a private provider is accepted.

"Its time is definitely here," she said.

What's next

Depending on what the next inhabitant of the 1909 mansion at 1730 E. Superior St. decides to do, there may not be a birth center in the area come May.

Bernini Feigal doesn't intend to run the business from afar with a new midwife, though she's open to any discussions. She's put Morning Star up for sale for $95,000.

The house itself, remodeled and refinished to be a beautiful and licensable home for newborns and new mothers, is for sale for $880,000. A few other holistic tenants — chiropractic, acupuncture and massage — reside in the house.

There have been a few tours, though no offers yet. Such a stately manse likely won't stay on the market long, however.

Talking about her time as a midwife, Bernini Feigal is torn between nostalgia and relief. No longer will she be hundreds of miles from her family, still in Menominee. Still, there is part of her that always imagined being a "gray-haired 80-year-old still catching babies."

At 47, she's got time and energy to do something else, though what that is remains to be seen. It will be one thing to stop taking calls as a midwife, however, and another to stop thinking of herself as one.

"I wonder how long it will take to stop carrying around a delivery pack in my car."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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