KINGSTON, R.I. September 28, 2016 — The word “midwife” ordinarily does not conjure images of a military jet soaring over Alaska with a pregnant woman aboard or taking a snow plow to a hospital in a blizzard to help a woman give birth. But such events are simply part of the career of URI College of Nursing Associate Professor Deb Erickson-Owens. The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel has excelled as a nurse midwife, educator and researcher by being anything but ordinary.
Last month Rhode Island Monthly magazine chose Erickson-Owens as Nurse Midwife of the Year as part of its Excellence in Nursing awards, presented with the Rhode Island State Nurses Association. Honorees are nominated by peers and judged by a panel of nursing leaders from around New England. “It blew me away that it was the first time midwives were nominated and that I was selected out of a pool of so many who should be honored,” says Erickson-Owens of North Kingstown.
She credits her 20-year career as an Air Force nurse and midwife with providing experiences that she would not have had otherwise. “I have had the opportunity to see different ways of doing things that get you to the same result,” said Erickson-Owens, who practiced and taught in several states and countries before retiring from the military in 1998.
That perspective enriches her teaching at URI. Erickson-Owens says she recognizes that there are many different kinds of students, and she must try creative approaches to make their learning experiences the best they can be.
These days, Erickson-Owens, who headed the obstetrical department at the Air Force Academy hospital in Colorado Springs and served as midwifery consultant to the Air Force surgeon general, teaches graduate students and has been immersed in umbilical cord-clamping research with URI Professor Emeritus Judith Mercer that has shown results for improving infant health and development. Their work has led to a project examining the infant brain underway with Brown University colleagues.
But the woman who helped 1,400 babies into the world before giving up her practice in 2014 to focus on teaching and research is at her core a midwife, which is one reason why the recent honor is so meaningful. What resonates across her professional life is how women across the generations want to share their birth stories when they learn she is a midwife. “It’s amazing when women in their 80s and 90s can recount their birth experiences. The vividness of the experience … it can be a time when a woman really discovers herself and her strength. Midwives are there to help them and be a partner in that,” she says.