Eileen Nyholt


by Ellen C. Warren, photograph by Peter DiAntoni

When Eileen Nyholt meets a person for the first time, it’s often the very first time that person is meeting anyone. These are very small people and it is her hands that guide them into a strange new world of loud noises, bright lights and brand new ideas. Like breathing. Relying on techniques and wisdom, much of it passed down through the ages, she uses her skill to ease the journey and make the transition of birth as trauma-free as possible.

Eileen is a professional midwife. She’s been “catching babies,” as she likes to call it, for a long time now. And she loves it. “This is absolutely a calling for me,” she exclaims. “I have to do this!”

During her years at UWM School of Nursing Eileen decided to pursue midwifery because she felt a need to serve her community. A year after graduating, Eileen spent six weeks catching babies in Kenya under the tutelage of one of her mentors, a midwife and missionary who’d worked for 15 years in war-torn Sierra Leone. With few of the tools or medicines Western hospitals and clinics have at their disposal, nurses in Kenya taught Eileen “how to use my hands instead of technology. That was a big lesson,” she emphasizes.

These days Eileen works at Sinai Hospital. She has worked in all the Milwaukee hospitals and chose Sinai because “women have the most choices there.” This, she says, is due to the influence of the midwives. Sinai has one of the longest-running and largest midwife practices in the area. In its approximately 19 years, the staff has gone from one to 10 midwives. The high quality of care, nurturing treatment of the whole family (“It’s not just the woman who’s pregnant.”) and very large amount of time spent in consultation and labor (compared to a doctor’s delivery) attracts many nurses, doctors and their partners to the midwives at Sinai for their personal deliveries, in addition to the mostly low-income population the hospital generally serves.

Eileen’s decision to become a midwife was jelled in her early hospital exposure to how women in birthing situations were sometimes treated. Often it seemed the women’s own physical realities would be invalidated by doctors who’d respond with words like, “No, that doesn’t hurt.” Eileen found herself thinking, “You know, I could do this a lot better, and a lot more respectfully.” She is, however, quick to point out that there are many really good doctors.

Eileen crossed from the Eastside into Riverwest more than seventeen years ago “for the parking,” she says with a big laugh. She lived seven years in the house where her daughter Lily, who’s now nine and a half years old, was born at home. Her next and final move was kitty-corner into a rental house, which, when asked, the landlord was willing to sell.

She’s always been very happy with her neighborhood. Besides liking the “nice mix of individuals with different lifestyles, colors and creeds,” her neighbors have also proven to be highly supportive of their community. Eileen has seen big changes take place as a result. She tells the story about the building which Hotcakes Gallery now occupies at 3379 N. Pierce St. Once, she recalls, it was a drug house with prostitution. The whole neighborhood – people from Pierce, Fratney, Townsend – came together and took the landlord to task, bringing the police and alderman into play. Eventually they were successful in closing the drug house down. They continue to have a good block watch, and Eileen is one of the captains. In an interesting twist, that former drug house is now the place where Eileen teaches a weekly yoga class every Tuesday from 6 to 7:30 pm. From an early interest in yoga in her teens she went on to study for several years and was eventually asked to teach by her teacher, “a woman,” Eileen says, “who had a lot of wisdom.” She started her teaching at UWM.

“My whole life I’ve been intrigued by mindfulness,” remarks Eileen. “The breath work helps to open all the levels. Yoga brings the body and the mind together.” She explains that the practitioner of yoga has occasional “Aha! moments. Things are revealed to you as you spend time with them. They’re revealed to you because you’re paying attention.”

In her practice Eileen encourages the birth mother to pay attention to her own body, and to get as comfortable as possible. Eileen tells her clients, “We need a safe nest to go into labor. [The midwife’s] job is to make sure you feel like you have a safe nest so you can do the work you need to do.” The success of midwife-assisted births is backed up with some pretty impressive statistics. The percent of women requiring epidurals at Sinai is 36%, compared to 80-90% at other hospitals. Episiotomies are only needed 1% of the time, and even Csections take place at a very low 9%. (Midwives do not perform C-sections or use forceps.)

And then there’s the thrilling “sacred moment” of birth with Eileen’s hands (sometimes accompanied by the father’s hands) guiding the baby out and to its next resting place on the mother’s abdomen.

Eileen sums it up: “I am so honored that someone would allow me to be present at this miracle, at this lifechanging moment.

“And it happens every day.

“It’s an every-day miracle!”

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2006