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Hannah Dahlen - one midwifes journey to advocate for change

By Karen Keast | Last Updated: 19-11-2013

Australian College of Midwives’ spokesperson Hannah Dahlen

Hannah Dahlen’s earliest memories are of watching her mother, a midwife, tend to the care of pregnant women visiting a missionary clinic in Yemen, in the Middle East.

“My early memories are of sitting in the clinic with kidney dishes and spatulas while she did all of the antenatal checks and looked after women,” she recalled.

“When I was 10 I saw my first birth and when I was 12 my next door neighbour gave birth and I helped the midwife catch her. They named the baby after me.

“I held this baby as the dawn was breaking over the Middle East and I thought - there can be no other job on this earth, as being at the beginning of a new life.”

That early realisation has led to a career where Hannah has followed her passion for midwifery through clinical practice,

into academia and also into the domain of politics.

Now a renowned advocate for midwives, Hannah is the Australian College of Midwives’ spokesperson, an Associate Professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney, where she is one of Australia’s leading midwifery researchers, and a privately practising midwife with a small Sydney midwife group practice, where she has been pivotal to the delivery of 20 home birthed babies in the past two years.

Those roles form Hannah’s public persona but now Hannah has provided an insight into her private life, revealing her mother, who trained in England, and who “caught babies in people’s houses” was the inspiration behind her career.

Her mother’s decision to move to Yemen led to her mother meeting Hannah’s father, and resulted in Hannah being born and bred in one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.

Hannah moved to Australia at the age of 15 and later took up her nursing studies, before venturing to England to follow in her mother’s training footsteps, where she experienced home birthing.

Then she returned to Australia and worked as a midwife at several hospitals while adding to her studies, achieving Honours, her Masters and PhD, joining both UWS and the College, where she has also been president and vice president.

As a privately practising midwife, Hannah is also an eligible midwife with a Medicare provider number and she hopes to be one of the first midwives in the nation to have prescribing rights.

Outside of work, Hannah’s husband also works in the health sector, as the nurse manager of an intensive care unit.

“He’s often at the end and I am at the beginning. There’s a lot of similarities. I call them the book ends of life; everything in between is our lives,” she said.

“It matters intensely how these two incredible events occur - that we are born with dignity, love, pride and power and that we die with dignity, love, pride and power.”

Together, the couple have two girls, aged 14 and 7, and they have also lost two little boys who died of a rare genetic condition.

It was that experience that prompted Hannah to spend three years running workshops for midwives on grief and loss, and she now finds grieving parents contact her from across the country.

While Australia has taken major leaps in the field of midwifery care in the past few years, especially in the area of Medicare funding and a move towards prescribing rights, Hannah says midwives have also lost ground; losing visiting rights and insurance for home births, with the extension of the professional indemnity insurance exemption just a temporary solution.

Above all, Hannah wants Australia to embrace the benefits of home birthing, as part of her campaign for women to have greater choice when it comes to how they give birth.

Hannah believes home births are safe for low risk women with a competent registered midwife, well networked into a responsive health service.

“When you have all of that in place home birth is not only safe but truly satisfying,” she said.

“I want home births to become a valid option in the interest of equity and choice.”

With so many recent changes, and more on the horizon, Hannah said it’s an exciting time to be a midwife in Australia.

“I honestly think there’s no better career on earth,” she said.

“Many people think about changing their career or doing something else, I have never had a second thought about what I do.”

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