For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old Sometimes you can't retire even if you want to. For Dian Sparling, a nurse midwife, there's no one to take over her practice. But at 71, delivering babies on call is harder than it used to be. "It would be horrible if I had to do this and stay up all night and I didn't love what I do," she says.
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For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old

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For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old

For Midwife, 71, Delivering Babies Never Gets Old

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's continue our series Working Late, about older workers postponing retirement. For people who own their own businesses, retirement can be complicated. There may be nobody to take over, and people are counting on you. In Fort Collins, Colorado, a lot of people count on Dian Sparling. She's been a certified nurse midwife for more than three decades. But she's 71 now, and staying up all night delivering babies is harder than it used to be. We're going to hear about her challenges as part of today's Business Bottom Line. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's 6:30 in the morning. Amanda Trujillo is reclining in a dimly lit room, serenaded by the rhythm of her unborn baby's heart. She's been in labor since 2:00 a.m. Dian Sparling has been with her in the hospital birth center since 4:00.

DIAN SPARLING: We will just be patient a little bit longer. But you must speak up because we know when you get down to business of pushing, things go fast.

JAFFE: Sparling knows that because she delivered Amanda Trujillo's second child a couple of years ago.

SPARLING: Just a little bit longer to do this and then we'll go to work. OK?

JAFFE: Sparling founded an obstetrics and gynecology practice called Womancare 31 years ago. During her career she's delivered around 2,000 babies. Last year she decided she'd retire from that part of her job, though she continued to see patients in the office. She didn't miss being on call - the person who's awakened in the middle of the night when a patient goes into labor.

SPARLING: When you're on call you just can't really plan for anything. You just need to be available, both physically and your heart and soul available to do midwifery work. And when it's an unknown, I think it's a little bit more draining.

JAFFE: Then a few months ago one of the other nurse midwives in her practice had to take an extended medical leave. Sparling had to go back to being on call. She has no idea how long she'll have to keep doing this.

SPARLING: It would be horrible if I had to do this and stay up all night and didn't love what I do.


JAFFE: At the hospital's birth center, Sparling's spiky white hair sets her apart from her younger colleagues. But Nurse Kathy Clarkson makes a point of telling Sparling she was missed during her brief semi-retirement.

KATHY CLARKSON: Well, we're glad that you're back working again, Dian. You know, when you retired, it was, I mean we were all crying.

JAFFE: One of the nurses, formerly crying and now laughing, is Julie Christin. She believes that Sparling as a midwife works more closely with women in labor than do most MDs.

JULIE CHRISTIN: Physicians rely on us to do a lot of the labor support. But Dian spends a lot of time with her patients when they're in labor. I like that because then she's involved and can make decisions quicker and does what the patient wants to do, which is good.

CLARKSON: In tune with them emotionally as well as physically.

JAFFE: And then it's time to get in tune with Amanda Trujillo again. She's ready now. Her husband, Isaiah, supports one leg, delivery nurse Keri Ferguson supports the other.

KERI FERGUSON: Pull back and push hard.

ISAIAH TRUJILLO: There you go.

SPARLING: Good job, girl. Super. He really is right there.

JAFFE: The baby's head is free. The next hard part is moving his shoulders out.

SPARLING: Here he comes.

TRUJILLO: Here he comes. Come on, babe, push, push, push, push, push. Here he comes.

SPARLING: Good job.

TRUJILLO: Push, push. There he is.

FERGUSON: Okay, Amanda, put your feet down. Reach down here and grab your baby.

JAFFE: His name is Samuel. He weighs nearly nine pounds, and he quickly realizes he has a lot to say.


JAFFE: It is now almost 10:00 a.m. Sparling's been at the hospital for six hours, and she's jazzed.

SPARLING: People have asked me, does this feeling after a delivery ever get old? Absolutely not. It's a wonder to behold and my adrenaline stops pumping about two hours after a delivery. And then I can go to sleep.

JAFFE: But it takes her twice as long to recover from an all-nighter as it used to. And her closest friends worry about her. Sparling is long-divorced. Her two sons live back East. So this group of friends are the ones she refers to as her support people. They meet for dinner at a restaurant downtown.

WAYNE PEAK: We think she should be retired but she doesn't think she can.

JAFFE: That's Sparling's friend, Wayne Peak.

PEAK: She's our age and we're retired, and we like to travel and relax a whole bunch. And she's on-call and has to stay up in the middle of the night and deliver babies. That's not good.

NANCY GROVE: Initially, when Dian told me she was going back, I selfishly said doggonit.

JAFFE: That's Nancy Grove.

GROVE: Once I stopped thinking about myself and started thinking a little more about Dian, I really wanted to support her in what she wants to do, needs to do, because she is a very valuable asset in our community.

JAFFE: Sparling has reassured her friends that she will not keep delivering babies forever. In a way she longs for retirement - from deliveries, from the office, from work. But that would mean finding someone to take over her practice and run it the way she believes it should be run. For instance, no patient is turned away because of lack of insurance or inability to pay.

SPARLING: The truth of the matter is, this is not a money-making business. It makes our salaries, it makes our healthcare insurance payments for ourselves, it pays for our malpractice insurance that is required by the state and also by our hospital. We can exist and pay for ourselves. But it doesn't make money.

JAFFE: Sparling says that at the age of 71, she realizes that time is not on her side. As much as she loves her work, she wants to pursue the other pleasures of life.

SPARLING: One of which is travel. There are so many places in the United States and in the world that I would love to go. And one is taking piano lessons. I was given a piano at age seven by my grandmother and really never made proper use of it, and practice. And you need time to do that.

JAFFE: Sparling's given herself deadlines for retiring before. None have stuck. But she's still trying.

SPARLING: Now I guess I can draw a line in the sand and say it's going to be 75. I will no longer be seeing patients in the office.

JAFFE: But she acknowledges that maybe a line in the sand isn't the best metaphor. She says: You know how sand flows. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.



NPR videographer John Poole went to Fort Collins to make a short film about Dian Sparling and Womancare. You can see that at Next week in Working Late, we'll explore encore careers - jobs that come after retirement. We'll meet a retired Chicago police officer who now runs a barber shop with his kids.

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