NOEL KING, HOST:
You might not think of a prenatal checkup as a thing that brings strangers together and becomes a kind of community, but that is exactly what reporter Jenny Gold found.
JENNY GOLD, BYLINE: I'd always imagined having a baby surrounded by my family and friends. But when I found out I was pregnant, my husband and I had just moved from San Francisco to Chicago. I hardly knew a soul. I looked for friends at work, in prenatal yoga classes, at the bookstore. But I ended up finding a community where I least expected it - at a medical office.
CAROL HIRSCHFIELD: How you doing?
GOLD: Good. I'm a little tired.
You're listening to the audio I recorded at my 38-week pregnancy visit at Northwestern Medicine. I'm lying on an exam table behind a curtain as midwife Carol Hirschfeld (ph) searches for the baby's heartbeat.
Oh, there he is.
So far, it seems like your average prenatal visit. But just on the other side of that curtain are six other couples waiting for their turn.
GOLD: We're part of a program called Centering Pregnancy. Instead of individual 15-minute prenatal visits, you meet as a group for two hours. After the brief medical check, we sit in a circle to talk about all the crazy things happening to our bodies. There's a curriculum focused on things like nutrition, relationships and labor. But mostly we just talk, prompted by the two midwives who lead the group, Carol Hirschfeld and Ariel Derringer.
ARIEL DERRINGER: The things that we passed around are some quotes, if you want to say something, a wish or a - something that you're feeling. Does anyone want to start?
MIKE: So the quote that I have is the greatest gift a couple can give a baby is a loving relationship.
GOLD: It sounds a lot like a support group, and that's part of the point. The goal here is to provide medical care and educate, yes, but also to reduce stress and isolation.
DERRINGER: The biggest positive outcome here is the growth of community, having people go through the most difficult transition in their life with other women going through the same thing.
GOLD: Years of studies, many focusing on teen and low-income moms, have found that babies born to women in centering groups are less likely to be born premature. And that saves money, more than $22,000 for every premature birth that can be prevented. Over the past five years, the number of practices that offer centering has nearly doubled to 600. Most of the groups are led by midwives, and about half are in community health centers that serve mainly low-income women. But private practices are jumping in too. I was in Northwestern's first group.
DERRINGER: As word spreads and as people talk about their experience, I think people will be asking us instead of us asking them. My vision in the future is really an opt-out as opposed to an opt-in.
GOLD: I worried at first that I might miss out on one-on-one attention. What I found instead was the Chicago tribe I'd been seeking. I actually left the hospital a little early after giving birth to go to our final session. There were three brand-new humans in attendance.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
GRACE TUMAN: I didn't think I would get emotional, but God - hormones.
GOLD: Grace Tuman, one of the other moms in the group.
TUMAN: You don't feel as alone or neurotic when you can talk about things, and everyone else is going through the same thing.
GOLD: We moved back to California just two months later, but it didn't mean the end of our group. In April, my family flew all the way back to Chicago to attend a reunion in the midst of a snowstorm. Even the midwives showed up.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP MEMBERS: One, two, three.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP MEMBER: She says, I've been tired, y'all.
GOLD: This little community forged at a medical office is one I'm hoping to be part of for a long time to come.
I'm Jenny Gold in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF YAKIMA SLOW'S "MONGOOSE KID")
KING: Jenny Gold is with our partner Kaiser Health News.
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