Columbia midwife assists hundreds of births in Thailand

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | 8:20 p.m. CDT; updated 12:18 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 6, 2012

COLUMBIA — Growing up with a mom who didn't have a mom taught Kate Besleme a lot about motherhood.

Besleme, who has two children, was born and raised in Farmington. Looking back now on the origins of her interest in childbirth, she recalls asking her mom as a little girl where she came from and hearing the story of her grandmother, who died after giving birth to her mother, Rita.

For the past eight years, the Missouri native has been living in Bangkok and working as a doula, someone who helps women during childbirth. Besleme is now studying to earn a professional midwife certificate. This week, she's briefly returning to Columbia for the showing of a film at the Unity Center that has a special meaning in her life in Thailand.

The documentary "Guerrilla Midwife" will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Unity of Columbia, 1600 W. Broadway. The 90-minute film follows Besleme’s mentor, Ibu Robin Lim, in her work as a midwife in Bali as well as Aceh, Indonesia, after an earthquake and tsunami in December 2004 left nearly 228,000 dead or missing and 1.12 million homeless.

The event is co-sponsored by Unity Rising, Columbia Area Midwives and the Mid-MO Doula Resource Group.

Unity Rising arranges spiritual trips across the globe and traveled earlier this year to Bali where participants visited Yayasan Bumi Sehata nonprofit organization founded in 1995 by Lim.

Besleme, who volunteers at Yayasan Bumi Sehat every year for a month or two, moved to Columbia with her family in 1988. She went to Hickman High School and later went to college in Minnesota and got a job in the White House Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. She married in 2000 and in 2004, she and her husband moved to Thailand.

"I was getting burned out (from work)," Besleme said. "We were both ready for a change and wanted to go overseas."

Besleme had begun working as a doula in Washington, D.C., and continued that work in Bangkok, providing emotional and physical support to hundreds of women during pregnancy. She became a midwife apprentice in Bali, and that's when she became involved with Yayasan Bumi Sehat.

She said it was "the most humbling and fulfilling training" she had ever received. Most of the expectant mothers coming to the clinic are living in poverty and are at risk, and otherwise would have no other choice but to give birth on their own.

What struck Besleme most deeply was the Balinese custom of chanting at the moment of birth. Indonesian culture encourages family members — even children — to gather in the labor room and show support for both the mother and the baby. When the baby arrives, everybody in the room begins singing to celebrate the first moment of life.

"Sometimes the mom is also singing," Besleme said. "It is so powerful, given how divisive the religion can be, no matter how rich, how poor the mother is."

Families of the newborn in the clinic show their respect and gratitude by putting their hands together or bowing to those who helped. The Balinese also have a ritual of showing their gratefulness to the creator by putting "canang sari" — an offering basket made of bamboo shaped like a boat, and filled in with flowers — in front of the village temple, small house shrine or even on the ground.

Michelle Johnstone, a member of the board of directors of Unity of Columbia, was one of the organizers and participants in the trip to Bali this March. Johnstone was amazed by the love and compassion on display at Yayasan Bumi Sehat. 

"They honor the mother and child in birthing process," Johnstone said, "Everybody (in the clinic) is like angels working there, love emitting from their eyes."

The 13 people on the Bali trip, among them nine from Columbia, brought suitcases full of medical supplies, clothing and hygiene products for the clinic in Bali, Johnstone said. 

Both Columbia Area Midwives and the Mid-MO Doula Resource Group provide midwives service and birth-related education for Missouri families. 

Sunday's film event is free and open to the public, although some scenes of the tsunami and birthing may not suitable for children.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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