1,500 babies … and counting

SARANAC LAKE – Everywhere she goes, Mary Rooks is reminded why becoming a certified nurse-midwife was the best decision she ever made.

“When I go to the farmers market or Price Chopper or anywhere, I see my kids all over the place,” said Rooks, who works for Dr. Waguih Kirollos at Saranac Lake-based Tri-Lakes OB/GYN. She’s also a member of the associate medical staff at Adirondack Health. “I once walked down the street and I think I counted like 17 babies I knew I had delivered on Old Lake Colby Road from all the different houses.”

Rooks estimates she has she delivered around 1,500 babies over the past dozen-plus years. You might think, after doing it so many times, the thrill of delivering a baby girl or boy has gotten a little old for her, but that’s not the case.

“I really do still love doing this every day,” she said. “It’s given me a purpose to my life which is profound. It’s my reason for my place in this community and on this planet.”

While Rooks has found her passion, becoming a nurse-midwife wasn’t the career path she started out on. Mary (Schilling) Rooks first visited the Adirondacks while studying biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from SUNY-ESF in 1983.

“I got married (to Mark Rooks) very shortly afterwards, and the following year we had a baby,” Rooks said. “We had a sick baby.’

The Rooks’ oldest son Walt was born five weeks premature with an undiagnosed birth defect called gastroschisis.

“His abdomen didn’t close during development, so the stuff that was supposed to be inside was on the outside,” Mary Rooks said. “He had to be put back together again.”

Walt Rooks is now healthy and attending college, but his mother’s experience in the hospital before, during and after his birth led her to re-think what she wanted to do with her life.

“I spent a lot of time in the hospital with him, and it gave me a chance to be exposed to nurses and the people who take care of mothers and babies,” she said. “It really lit something inside of me in terms of wanting direction in my life.

“The thing that really motivated me was I did not have a real satisfying experience with the doctor who was taking care of me when I was pregnant. I just thought somebody could do this better. I could identify with women who had stress in their lives around their child’s birth and their pregnancies, and that’s why I ended up doing what I’m doing.”

After Walt turned 3, Rooks went back to school. She earned a nursing degree at Onondaga Community College in 1988 and a certificate as an adult health nurse practitioner in 1991 from Community General Hospital of Syracuse. Rooks later attended the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing in Kentucky, founded in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge.

“She came from a family of privilege,” Rooks said of Breckinridge. “Her father was a diplomat and they traveled all over the world. She got married and had (two) children, but her children died. She divorced her husband and became an independent person and decided to focus her life on helping mothers and babies. The details were different, but it really strikes me that we had similar motivations.”

Rooks completed her studies at the Frontier School in 1999. She’s since been certified by the American College of Nurse Midwives.

What does a nurse-midwife do?

“Our focus is from antepartum, which means taking care of people during pregnancy, through the child birthing process, delivering babies and then taking care of them afterwards as they recover,” Rooks said. “We also get specialty training in gynecology and family planning, cancer screening. In my case I’m also an adult nurse practitioner, so I can treat adults for a broad range of mostly uncomplicated medical problems.”

Rooks has also been trained to assist in surgery, so she can hep with Caesarian sections and other surgeries. She’s worked with Dr. Kirollos for the past 12 years but has also worked with other local obstrecians, including Dr. Denise Ferrando and Dr. James Jenks.

“Adirondack Health is a small community hospital, and we take care of uncomplicated pregnancies very well,” Rooks said. “When things become more complicated and a child or a mother needs a higher level of care, we have to sometimes send people to places like Fletcher Allen (Health Care in Burlington, Vt.). I think for what our limitations are, we do it very well here.

“I think there’s a big comfort in knowing who’s going to be there and knowing how you’ve developed a relationship with that person to be able to work through whatever the problem is at any moment. There’s a lot of trust, I think, that develops. That happens over months and years of knowing a family or knowing your provider.”

While Rooks celebrates the number of healthy babies she’s delivered over the years, her job isn’t always full of joy. She’s also had to be the bearer of bad news.

“That’s hard,” she said. “And my heart breaks because I was once the recipient of bad news, the day that my son was born. I do understand it. I also know that people need to have straight information and an empathetic response to get them through the hard stuff.”

After so many years of being on call, Rooks said she recently had thoughts of taking her career in another path that would give her more personal time, but she ultimately decided to stay in Saranac Lake and keep doing what she’s doing.

“You do get tired and sometimes you need to recharge your batteries, but mostly I just love it,” she said. “I had entertained (another opportunity), but there’s no place like home, and in the end I knew this is where I needed to be and where I wanted to be.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.