Empowering Women as a Midwife, Advocate, Firefighter and So Much More
By ML Ball
Photographed by dKol Photography
In this hurly-burly world of ours, some people are givers and some are takers. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Melissa Lawlor is a giver.
Possessing seemingly endless reservoirs of energy that would put the Energizer Bunny to shame, Melissa is a firefighter, EMT, registered nurse, an international board-certified lactation consultant, a La Leche League leader, certified nurse-midwife, lobbyist and (as soon as she finishes her post-master’s degree) family nurse practitioner. Oh, and a wife and the mom of three boys, ages 22, 20 and 15.
Whew. How on earth does she do it all?
“I’m terrible at boundaries,” Melissa said recently. “It’s always my New Year’s resolution every year, to be better at boundaries. And then somebody calls and says, ‘Can you do this?’ and I say, ‘Okay, sure.’”
Born at Keller Army Community Hospital in West Point, Melissa spent the first five years of her life in Mississippi until her parents moved the family back to Salt Point, which five generations of ancestors on her mother’s side have called home. “My mom’s family came over on the second boat after the Mayflower,” she said, “so we’ve been here a really long time.”
For anyone who knew Melissa as a child, it should come as no surprise that she has spent her life helping people, especially women and babies. “When I was a little girl, we lived on a farm and I loved watching the animals give birth, seeing the baby goats and the puppies being born,” she explained. “I’ve always been driven toward babies, I babysat a lot, I love the look of a pregnant belly. My family attended the [Westminster] Presbyterian Church in Salt Point, and when the Bible would talk about midwives, I would think, ‘What’s this midwife thing?’ It spoke to me; it was something that hit me in my soul,” she recalled.
Yet that early affinity for babies and midwifery almost got extinguished early on. “I was born in the 1970s, and women back then weren’t empowered like they are now,” Melissa said. “In school, you weren’t equal to a boy. I remember saying that I wanted to be a doctor, and I was told by teachers that I couldn’t because I wasn’t smart enough. They told me I could be a nurse. That really impacted me.”
Not one to be sidelined for long, though, Melissa regrouped and found another passion to pour her energy into: firefighting/emergency medicine. While a bystander one day at a car accident up the street from her house, she was approached by Jeff Cady, the local fire chief at the time, who asked her if she might come down and join the firehouse. “I hadn’t even thought about doing that because growing up, you’re not told you can do that as a woman,” she said. “But I did it. I was 18, 19 years old.”
Immediately, Melissa took to firefighting like a duck to water. “It was awesome,” she said. “I got my EMT certification and was a support firefighter, doing exterior work, not interior. But the rescue squad was really where I shone. I loved the ambulance side of it. I volunteered as an EMT, and I worked for two ambulance corporations, one in Westchester and one up here in Wappingers.”
She would work a 12-hour shift at one ambulance company and then leave and go work another 12-hour shift at the other. “You see that degree of commitment with people who are involved in the fire service,” she said. “They take care of people when they’re at their neediest time. You’re serving your community, and that was really important to me.”
The next chapter in Melissa’s journey was to become a registered nurse. “When my husband and I had our second son, I decided to go back to Dutchess Community College and get my RN,” she said, “doing home health care for high-risk prenatals, postpartum visits and lactation.”
For the second time in her life, Melissa found a career that truly made her happy. “I would have been an awesome physician, but my heart is in nursing,” she stated. “But I never did traditional hospital work because my family and being a mom have always come first.”
With two young boys at the time, one of the Lawlors had to make a sacrifice, and Melissa and her husband, Matt, decided it would be her. “Matt co-owns Matt’s Auto Body, and that’s a very busy business,” she said. “The kids needed a parent at home who was going to be there all the time, so for us that was me. That was a sacrifice as a woman that I had to make.”
For such a go-getter, shifting roles from full-time EMT to full-time mom was not easy. “I was doing something that I loved and was so passionate about and was so involved in,” Melissa said. “I was a working woman, and that was my identity and I was good at it, and then I switched to being a mom. We really undervalue mothers in the U.S. We really do.”
Before long, it was time in Melissa’s life for careers three, four and five. First she became a doula, a woman who gives emotional supportive care to a woman in labor. “Right from the beginning, I said, ‘That’s my calling, that’s where I’m headed, this is another stepping stone for me,’” she explained. “I get to see women through the most empowering time in their lives, which is becoming a mom. It was a beautiful transition for me at that point in my life, but at the same time, it was hard because you’re on call 24/7 and most babies are born at night.”
Then when her third son was born in 2002, she studied and trained to become a La Leche League leader and international board-certified lactation consultant.
In 2012, Melissa went back to school again, this time online, to Frontier Nursing University in Hyden, Kentucky. Founded in 1939 by acclaimed nurse-midwife Mary Breckinridge, FNU’s mission is to empower health-care providers to go back into their communities and deliver top-notch health care and preventative medicine.
As Melissa tells it, somewhat gleefully, “Since my GPA from DCC all those years ago wasn’t high enough to get in FNU, I had to take the GRE. I studied and studied and took the test, and I scored at the genius level!” she exclaimed. “Who would’ve thought, after being told I wasn’t smart enough.”
Now a certified nurse-midwife, Melissa does not need to work under a physician’s supervision in New York State. “I can order any test you need, I can write any kind of prescription, I can help you have your baby at home or in the hospital,” she said. “New York State has wonderful independent-provider laws for nurse-midwives.”
As you can guess by now, Melissa rarely sits still and is therefore now hard at work on careers six and seven.
“A lot of what I do now is advocacy work,” she said. “We have an unacceptable rate of maternal mortality in this country, especially with low-income African American and Hispanic women. Research shows that if a health system employs midwives, the mortality rate decreases, in the U.S. and worldwide. A lot of countries use midwives more than we do, which makes me think we don’t value babies, we don’t value women enough.”
Melissa also travels frequently to Albany and has learned the ins and outs of lobbying. “I’m on the [board of the] New York [Statewide] Breastfeeding Coalition, and I’m proud to say that New York now has its own milk bank,” she stated. “The Coalition helped get that going. I advocated for that and also for babies getting donor milk in the NICU” (see article Breastmilk in the NICU: Liquid Gold).
In addition to her advocacy work, Melissa is back in school (again), getting her post-master’s as a family nurse practitioner because, as she puts it, she’s surrounded by lots of men but can’t provide care for them.
“Being involved in the fire service, guys ask me all the time if I could treat them for this or that, and I can’t,” she said. “As a certified nurse-midwife, I’m only certified for women. So with this next degree, I’ll be able to extend my role of care in the community to the whole family.”
Care. Caring. Family. Community. Health. Support.
If only there were more Melissas in the world…But aren’t we glad there’s this one. █