In the high-tech world of modern motherhood, Etta Nichols of Cocke County, Tenn. is a rosy-cheeked, 88-year-old anomaly. A practicing midwife for 55 years, Etta—”Granny Nichols” to her neighbors—has traveled by car, horse and foot “as far as North Carolina” to deliver babies. Most of her patients give birth in a clean, sparsely furnished room in Nichols’ four-room cabin. She is self-taught (Tennessee does not require midwives to be licensed), owns little special equipment other than an incubator a nurse gave her 10 years ago and says she has never lost a patient—in part because she calls in a local doctor if serious trouble develops. “Her type of practice is fraught with danger,” says gynecologist Dr. Robert Rabbitt, a friend who works in nearby Morristown. “It’s not the way I would want to practice, but she has done very well.”
A widow since her husband of 67 years, Harrison, died of a heart attack three years ago, Nichols is a mother of four, grandmother of 14 and great-or great-great-grandmother of 26. She also considers herself unofficial godmother to all her “baby cases.”
I was born pretty close to where I live now, about two miles down the road. My mother had 11 children, but she only raised eight of ’em to be grown. I was the oldest of the ones living. My father was a doctor and his dad was a doctor, too. I guess my dad was in his 30s before he went to doctoring. Before that he was a farmer. He was said to be the best for fever and stuff like that. He didn’t go to medical school, but Granddad did. My father doctored under his dad. I guess it’s in my blood.
I always wanted to be a nurse, but my mama was sick so much I didn’t get to go to school. I never even did go to high school. I just stayed home and helped Mama with the work.
I was with my mother when she had my baby brother. Me and my aunt, we were with her of a night when Dad went after Aunt Margaret Haney. She was a midwife, the best one they ever had in this county, I reckon. Aunt Margaret Haney was stone blind. When she got that baby, I remember her scooting the blood from the cord up towards the baby, then she’d feel about how far to tie the cord and then she’d cut it right where she wanted it. Then she’d feel for the afterbirth. She couldn’t see a wink. People had to help her around because she’d run into things if they didn’t. But she could deliver a baby just as good as she’d had 10 eyes.
When I had my babies, the first one was delivered by Mary Smith. She was a midwife too. Aunt Margaret Haney delivered my second and my dad delivered the last two. I guess these other midwives got started the same way I did. Just went to doin’ it. You learn as you go and what you learn by experience, you don’t forget it.
I was about 33 when I delivered my first baby. It was for a woman who lived up the creek from me. I was coming back with the children from my mama’s when I met this woman’s brother who was going after my dad. I told him Dad wasn’t home so he asked me, “Will you go up there?” I’d been with my dad a place or two when he delivered a baby. I hadn’t ever done that before myself but I wasn’t scared.
When I got there, the woman was laying in bed. I just washed my hands good and checked her down there and felt the baby’s head. I had checked one once with my dad. Then I told her to stand up a little bit. She stood there until her water broke, then she held my hands and went to bearing down. When the baby started to come out I just helped it and then caught the afterbirth. I got the woman fixed up and the baby dressed, then the woman’s mother and me took the afterbirth up the road to bury it in the field. You have to do something with ’em.
After that first baby it wasn’t long before I was going first one place and then another. We didn’t have no phone. Folks would just come after me. I have went when they was just hurting a little and I’d stay until they got along. I’d be gone maybe a day and a night, sometimes maybe two or three days. My husband took care of the children. He was a farmer, raised corn and tobacco, so he was home anyway.
I started having women come here to my house when my mother fell and broke her hip. I was in my 60s, I think. I delivered over 2,000 babies and I haven’t ever really been nervous. I’ve had an afterbirth or two stick and I couldn’t get it out and had to send the women to town to the doctor, but I don’t remember any really hard deliveries. First thing I do when they come here, I let ’em go to bed and I check ’em to see if they’re ready to have ’em.
If they’re not I let them get up and rock or walk. It helps them along. A body gets wore out laying in the bed so long. When it gets to hurting them real bad, I put them in the bed and tell them to bear down. I don’t use any tools at all. Just my scissors to cut the cord. I sterilize ’em, of course. I’ve got rubber gloves but I don’t use them. They’re too long for my fingers. I wash my hands good with tincture of green soap. It’s a germ killer. I use that all the time during their pregnancy when I’m checking them. I’ve never had no trouble with people getting infections.
The women that come here, they don’t yell and holler too much. With their first ones is when they do the most yelling ’cause they’re nervous. Sometimes the fathers come in with them. Most of them don’t want to and I just as soon they wouldn’t. A lot of times they come in and go to pettin’ on the women and go to cryin’ a little and then the women go to carryin’ on more. But if the men wants in, I let ’em.
I’ve had a few that the baby was going to be born breech. You have the women get on their knees on the bed and put their head down and their rear end up just as high as they can and let ’em stay there for 10 or 15 minutes. Then let them turn back and that baby is turned. I’ve delivered a few dead babies, but I’ve never had a baby that was all right die while it was being born.
I’ve delivered 20 some sets of twins. Never have done any triplets though. If I ever get some triplets, I’m going to do them for free. I charge $15. ‘Course there’s been some that give me more because they want to. There’s a lot of ’em here that don’t pay, but they get their baby. I didn’t turn ’em down. I deliver them even if I know they haven’t got a penny.
After they’d had a baby, the women used to wait a day or two to go home, but they got so now you can’t keep them in bed about two hours. Some of ’em come back a few weeks after a birth. I check ’em to see that they’re healed and check the baby’s navel. I recommend nursing babies, but they’re ain’t many of ’em does. They act like they’re ashamed or something. I nursed mine until they was about 2 years old or at least until they was eating and having teeth. Then it’s time to quit. You can’t hardly keep from slapping them when they bite you with those little old teeth.
All I know about how babies are born in hospitals is what people have told me. I’ve never been there. Most of my grandchildren were born in hospitals. Their mothers wanted to be put to sleep. That’s the reason they went. I don’t believe in people being put to sleep, but if they want to be, that’s their business.
I’ve had one or two women come here and ask for abortions. I never have done that. I wouldn’t know how even if I was that mean. Once two sisters come here. One of ’em was pregnant. She said, “It don’t belong to my husband and I got to get rid of it.” I told her it’s just as well to knock one in the head that’s runnin’ with you as to kill one you never seen. She kept saying as how it wasn’t her husband’s, but she oughtta thought about that before she got that way.
The women now tell me that a lot of doctors are quitting delivering babies because there’s a lot of the mothers suing them if the baby is deformed in any way. Well, that ain’t the doctor’s fault, unless he was to break a leg or something getting them borned. A lot of the women drinks and is on dope and they ruin their babies and then they want to blame the doctor.
Some weeks I have delivered as many as five babies, then there won’t be another one for a long time. It just happens that way. There was a woman who come in a few months ago. I laid down while I was waiting on her and my daughter came here and told that woman I wasn’t able to deliver babies and she left. It hurt me. My daughter knowed it, too, and she said she never would say another word to me if that was what I wanted to do. I never turn anybody away. I love little old young’uns. I call ’em mine, the babies I deliver. I enjoy doin’ something for somebody, and I’ll keep delivering babies till my toes are sticking up.