Midwives: changing the world one baby at a time

For almost 40 years, Melinda Milligan has been helping new islanders enter the world.

“It may sound like a cliche, but it really is a privilege to be with people at their most vulnerable, most brave, at one of the most important moments in a woman’s life: when she is giving birth,” said Melinda. “It’s such a huge moment for a family – to be part of that, it’s wonderful.”

Milligan’s last day as a midwife will be Dec. 31. Then, she said, it’s time for fun.

“I want to see what life is like without carrying a pager 24/7, which I’ve done for more than 25 years,” said Milligan. “I have lots of interests, family and friends, theater, music, et cetera, that need more time committed to them.”

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Milligan earned her bachelor’s in sociology from the University of California Santa Clara. At age 22, she moved to Seattle to be a social worker after a college friend suggested she apply at High Point Medical Center. Milligan had a client who had just moved to the city from Belize, was two weeks from giving birth and spoke of a new type of natural birthing technique called Lamaze. She said that she began taking her client to private lessons at the house of Patty Simkin, who is a well-known educator in the childbirth field.

Milligan was with the young mother when she gave birth without using any medication. It was then that she decided childbirth was the field she was meant to be in.

“This is something I want to do,” Milligan said. “I found my spot.”

In 1973 or 1974 – the exact year being a topic of debate between Milligan and her husband Dave Zoeller – she moved to the island to work with Dr. Stan Williams. She and Williams had met in Seattle, where they both worked at High Point. The pair were taking over the medical clinic – located where the Lower Tavern is today – and the practice of retiring Dr. Barbour.

“Forty years ago, a physician had a lot more leeway to train people to do things under their supervision,” said Milligan. “I worked the front desk, answered the phone, performed tests in the lab, took vital signs, went on house calls with him, including a few home births.”

After working with Williams for a while to “dip her toe” into the medical field, she applied to Pace University in New York City, where she earned an undergraduate and master’s in nursing. She then went to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for midwifery.

“Charleston’s a beautiful, beautiful city,” said Milligan. “I got to live in the south for a couple of years, and experience that culture.”

In 1979 she earned her title of certified nurse-midwife and returned to Washington to begin working at the Mount Vernon Birth Center. It was there that she began to aid island women with childbirth.

“A lot of islanders came and had their babies there,” said Milligan. “There were always great mentors around. It was a great place to start out.”

Certified nurse-midwives provide a variety of services to women, including routine gynecological exams, family planning, preconception, prenatal and postpartum care and delivering babies. After seven years of working in Mount Vernon, where she lived for one year and commuted from La Conner and Orcas for the rest of her tenure, she opened her own practice on Orcas in 1986. Her patients were mainly from Orcas and San Juan. Milligan preferred hospital births for islanders because if there is a problem, getting immediate medical attention is difficult.

Over the past three decades, Milligan has had to balance work life with personal life. She’s been married to Zoeller, who is an EMT, for 32 years, and they have two children together, Indy and Renny. Friends and family have gotten used to her needing to bail on plans and events at the last minute.

“There are sacrifices you have to make, in terms of your personal life,” said Milligan. “I wouldn’t change anything, but that is a challenge.”

Yet it hasn’t stopped her from having hobbies. Milligan began acting in community theater around 15 years ago when her children were old enough for her to be away at night. She also joined choir – she’s an active member of the Olga Symphony. And she’s a self-described “rabid” Mariners’ fan, attending around four games a year.

“I’d say theater, singing, and Mariners are probably my big interests,” said Milligan. “I’m looking forward to being able to do more of that.”

So just exactly how many islanders did Milligan help bring into the world over her career?

“I’ve been doing it a long time,” she said. “It’s more than 1,000 – I stopped counting.”