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Beyond her years: Foxcroft teen becomes one of nation’s youngest doulas

Rachel Brown, right, sits with her doula mentor Tabitha Kaza in a postpartum visit. Courtesy Photo
After more than a year of work and a dream that began at age seven, Foxcroft School senior Rachel Brown has become one of the youngest accredited doulas in the country.

When Brown’s mother went to nursing school, Brown eagerly watched videos with her and attended some classes and labs. Brown ended up watching a video of a C-section at age seven and decided she wanted to grow up and be involved in birth as an obstetrician.

Ten years later, at age 17, Brown has become a doula — a nonmedical birth assistant — and has become internationally accredited. She was just accepted early decision to Colgate University, where she plans to study biology in the pre-medical track on her way to become an obstetrician.

“As someone who’s so young, I felt the certification was important, because I felt like it made it more real and, yeah, I might be 17 but I’m certified the same as a lot of women much older than I am who choose this as a career,” Brown said.

To obtain the certification, Brown had to take classes and workshops, read books, assist in three births, document them in deep detail and write a paper to submit to DONA International, the oldest and most stringent accrediting agency.

The application ended up being around 75 pages worth of paperwork, Brown said, and the work associated with it would not have been possible without Foxcroft’s Exceptional Proficiency (EP) program.

Since 1991, Foxcroft, the Middleburg all-girls boarding and day school, has offered the EP program, allowing students pursue their passion in a specific discipline by training or competing off campus while maintaining high academic standards, program coordinator Beth O’Quinn said.

Interested girls have to demonstrate a skill, their parents have to request the program, the school has to approve them and they have to have support from an outside teacher or trainer, O’Quinn said. If accepted, the girls sign a contract maintaining that academics come first.

Brown always knew she wanted to go to Foxcroft like her mother, Susie Brown. When she first arrived, she thought she would use the EP program for competitive Irish dancing. But after an injury left her unable to compete, her plans changed.

As a junior, she decided to use the program to become a doula, the school’s first. After emailing several local doulas, Tabitha Kaza agreed to mentor Brown.

Initially, Kaza was concerned about Brown’s age and whether she’d be able to handle the intensity of assisting women giving birth. Her concerns quickly vanished.

“There's a lot that goes on, and you don't really get it until you do it, but she never had a problem with it when it came up, which is amazing. Even seasoned mothers who have given birth themselves can have a really hard time with what is asked of them as a doula and Rachel never did,” Kaza said. “Rachel is exceptional.”

As doulas, Brown and Kaza assist women giving birth, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Depending on when a doula is hired, they may be involved in prenatal care such as helping mothers get educated by helping them find the answers to questions and helping them work collaboratively with their care provider as well as childbirth education.

During births, doulas work on comfort measures, encouraging labor progress, changing positions and general encouragement, she said.

“And letting the mom know that she’s doing well and she’s working hard and that’s true no matter what kind of labor it is — medicated or unmedicated,” Kaza said.

After the birth, doulas help with breastfeeding support, getting mothers settled and comfortable. They also visit with clients once they’re back at home to make sure things are progressing well, see how the mom is recovering and if they have any additional questions or concerns.

“We always say, we’re still your doulas, even after all of this, reach out anytime if there’s anything that you need and we’ll help you get it. So it’s a very intimate relationship,” Kaza said.

Brown has assisted in eight births start to finish with Kaza. She keeps track of them all with a tree of life necklace that she decorates with blue and pink beads for each baby she assists with.
Brown said when she began assisting Kaza, she thought she would be sitting in a corner, observing. Instead, she was fully involved and up all night assisting. It was an experience Brown said she would never forget.

“She came home the next morning after being up for 36 hours straight, it was a long, long one, and she walks in the door and I said, ‘So, how was it?’ And she said, ‘I’m so tired but this is exactly what I want to be doing,” Susie Brown said. “And it was just a huge confirmation that this path she had chosen from a very early age, exactly what she wants to do.”

When Brown first expressed interest in using the EP program to become a doula, she wasn’t sure she’d be accepted because the program is usually used by athletes who compete around the country. Those absences are planned, whereas Brown may not know when she’ll be called away to assist in a birth.

However, Foxcroft staff was supportive from the start, Brown's mother said.

“I can’t really schedule my absences. If I get a call, I have to go, or if I go out in the middle of the night, I might be there at 7 a.m. still or I need to go home and sleep. They were very flexible about it, they were all very excited,” Brown said.

Brown said whenever she returns from an absence, her teachers are excited to hear about the experience. When she earned her certification, it was announced to the entire school.

A full-time doula can have four clients a month. Rachel works with one a month or one every other month in order to balance school with her work as a doula. In addition to working as a doula, Rachel is enrolled in four advanced placement classes and plays varsity soccer.

Kaza said being a doula means being on-call at all times, and while she’s had other people shadow her and not come through when the mother has needed them, this has never been the case with Brown.

Brown has assisted in births at hospitals in Loudoun, Fairfax and Washington D.C., as well as home births. The longest birth she assisted was more than 40 hours. She and Kaza have worked as a team to make sure mothers are always assisted, which sometimes meant taking turns to get snacks, use the bathroom or even take naps on hospital floors.

Though the time commitment and physical and emotional toll of helping women give birth for hours can be a challenge, Brown said seeing a baby born is exciting every time.

“Every time is different. I cry every time the baby is born, every time, might be a lot, might be a little,” Brown said. “It’s still the most amazing thing every single time.”

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