A woman with her feet spread apart in stirrups -- sweat dripping from her brow -- moans in pain while the doctor urges her to breathe and push.
It's the popular image that comes to mind when thinking about a woman in labour.
The births that registered massage therapist Jenna McMahon has witnessed are different.
In the hospital delivery rooms the Winnipegger attends, lights are often dimmed, voices are calm and McMahon asks the patient where she needs a massage -- perhaps some decompression work on the lower back to help ease labour pain.
McMahon might even put the patient on a exercise ball to help her find the right positioning to make giving birth easier. (Exercise balls, the large, beach-ball type of equipment used at gyms, offer a cushioned, mobile surface helpful in between woman's labour contractions, she says).
"I really just move with them moment to moment and offer them all that I can in order to support their bodies," says McMahon, who owns Equilibrium Massage Therapy and Wellness Centre on Pembina Highway.
The centre's staff offers acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine and massage therapy. McMahon specializes in general massage therapy as well "labour and delivery support" massage.
McMahon recommends her pregnant clients see her for three months prior to delivery so she can get to know their physical vulnerabilities. "They need to be comfortable with my physical presence," she says.
She charges $85 for each prenatal treatment. A mandatory pre-labour orientation class, in which McMahon spends an hour or two with the pregnant woman and her partner in their homes, costs $95. She is also "on-call" for delivery and has been known to spend many hours at the hospital. That service costs $475.
The service is not new to Winnipeg; other massage therapists throughout the city offer labour and delivery massage. (Doulas, non-medical birthing professionals, offer similar services).
McMahon has attended numerous births since 2006, when she started specializing in the area. "I've lost count of how many," she says.
She says obstetric nurses and doctors have come to accept the practice of patients hiring alternative professionals like herself to coach and comfort women giving birth.
"Medical staff is more exposed. It doesn't seem as foreign now," says the Exchange District resident.
McMahon, 33, grew up in North Kildonan and graduated from River East Collegiate before attending University of Manitoba on a music scholarship. Hours of playing and practising the flute led to neck and jaw pain. Her music accompanist, who happened to be a massage therapist, introduced her to the world of massage therapy.
She decided to pursue massage therapy even though, at the time, the profession didn't have the widespread respect it does today. (Many people, she says, didn't differentiate between sketchy parlour-type massages and therapeutic massage designed to treat physical ailments).
This May, it became obvious just how much respect she has earned from the medical profession.
That's when she was invited to travel to the Dominican Republic with Shine the Light Initiative, a charity -- founded by a Winnipeg dentist -- that takes medical care to developing countries. Volunteers pay for their own trips with Shine the Light. Along with providing medical care, volunteers help build houses.
The Winnipegger arrived in Central America with her massage table in her hand.
"We weren't entirely sure where I would fit in," she says.
Shortly after arrival, her teammates made contact with a local hospital where youth pregnancy was common. A doctor there invited her to accompany her on an obstetrics round.
"I was moved and honoured by that invitation," says McMahon, who worked with a 15-year-old Dominican girl in labour.
"It was a completely inspiring and beautiful experience."
Heather Finlay has no regrets about hiring McMahon to help with the birth of both her sons, now 5 and 2.
"I don't remember a lot of what she did. She had me moving around. She massaged my lower back," says Finlay, a French immersion science teacher at Kelvin High School.
What Finlay does remember: McMahon helped alleviate her intense pain, especially during her first labour. (She chose to have a drug-free delivery without an epidural).
"It was a long, drawn-out process. I wouldn't have lasted six hours of intense labour and pushing...without Jenna."
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