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Higher Health

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“We get to meet a lot of moms in the (Fort McMurray) community and we get to support them in one of the most transitional experiences they have in their lifetime. I love doing this.” —Karla Buffalo, Head Doula of the Higher Health Doula Cooperative


For many, the question is, what is a Doula?

The word itself, Doula, comes from the ancient Greek term meaning “to serve”.

In this case, to serve expectant mothers and their families.

In essence, Doulas have been around for centuries, be it family members or friends, assisting doctors and midwives in the birth process.

Doulas are non-medical labour support professionals who offer emotional, physical and informational support during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum for the mother and family, along with, according to the Higher Health website, “support preparation of your birth plan through use of the Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists of Canada healthy recommendations for safe birth.”

Karla Buffalo, Head Doula of the Higher Health Doula Cooperative echoes, “We are not medical in any way. We are not a doctor or a midwife as they are trained in the medical field. We are there to support the mother and the family.

“It can be any time from where she knows she is pregnant or right before the birth. We are essentially birth coaches. We are there for support and information for the mom and her birth plan and to provide reassurance. We tend to try to meet the mom two or three times before birth to build relationships with them and assist to provide them with info they need on pregnancy, birth or postpartum.”

Buffalo said that Doulas also offer techniques to support a mother in labour, including: various physical positions for comfort, usage of massage tools, music, etc.“We have many other tools in our back pocket to make it a more comfortable pregnancy and birth.”

According to Buffalo, 17 local Doulas are contracted out to Higher Health here in Fort McMurray.

She emphasizes that Doulas are never there “as a replacement for family.”

“It’s about enhancing the overall birth experience. It should never be looked at as interfering. It should be about the mom and the partner. We should be in the background.

“Or they may want us to be hands on and take the lead. Sometimes the partner may be overwhelmed. It may be that they are too nervous. We are there to help them through it.”

With three children of her own, ages five, seven and 18, Buffalo said she discovered the world of Doulas after the birth of her third child.

“We do preparation about what to name our kids or what to pack to get ready for when you go to the hospital or how the nursery will look at home, but we do not have enough knowledge of the birth process. After the birth of my third child, I decided to take some (Doula) courses. I love learning about the birth process.”

Heather O’Neill, Manager of Community Relations, says that from the “holistic standpoint”, Higher Health Clinic has a very robust team who offer registered services of acupuncture, Chinese Medicine, massage therapy and yoga in addition to Doula support for expectant mothers/families.

“Massage therapy during pregnancy is well-known to help reduce aches and pains related to pregnancy, allows for stress reduction, better sleep and supports women in prenatal and postpartum to maintain excellent self-care.

“Acupuncture is also quoted in the Canadian Medical Association Journal as the most effective way of bringing on labour, with the lowest risk of Cesarean in term uncomplicated pregnancies and may also be used throughout the pregnancy. For softening the cervix, though, we need to start seeing moms by 36 weeks,” says O’Neill.

Women’s benefits from acupuncture may include treatment of morning sickness, delayed or difficult labour, labour pain, induction of labour, post-partum dysuria, insufficient lactation, post-term pregnancy, abdominal positions of the fetus, miscarriage, postpartum depression, mood swings, irritated bladder problems, chronic pelvic pain, and cramps. “We have great success with turning breech babies using acupuncture, but again, we need to see Mom’s by about 34-36 weeks”

“We also see families for fertility frequently. Either for women just seeking additional support to help become pregnant or women who are utilizing or considering IVF.”

Higher Health is currently working on a new series for their prenatal birth class options and O’Neill says, “It’s exciting. Our Head Doula, Karla Buffalo, is bringing in some great initiatives that will benefit many families in Fort McMurray.”

Of the Higher Health Doula Cooperative, O’Neill says, “We are a type of care-support that is being more widely accepted by medical care providers. We don’t work for healthcare systems, but they see how we work well together. Some of the best care models in the country include Doulas in maternity wards. BC Women’s Hospital has a second to none program with “South Community Birth Program” which is 75 per cent funded by BC Women’s Hospital and 25 per cent by SCBP’s own registered charity, “Families at the Centre”.

“Those are the types of models of care that we are trying to strive for and to mirror. We are attempting to try to get some more traction at Northern Lights Regional (Health Centre) here in Fort McMurray. We made a proposal in 2015 for a Doula Program and our hope is to generate funding to help support that goal. We love working alongside the hard working nurses and Doctors of Fort McMurray. We are very busy this Spring from the wildfire, and we know they will be too!”

A Doula for five years, O’Neill, who took her training in Toronto, says, “I saw a need for it here in Fort McMurray. It is important that every mother/family have a doula, especially if they want one. The co-founders of Higher Health were very supportive of the idea. Chad Gergely even took the Doula training, that’s how much interest he has in improving care for women and their families. I think that’s amazing”

Higher Health written materials add: “Higher Health Doula Cooperative is 24/7/365. Doulas can provide tremendous emotional and physical support through any birth experience whether low or high risk.”

O’Neill provided some statistics stating that with Doula assistance there is a: 50 per cent reduction in cesarean rate, 60 per cent reduction in epidural requests, 40 per cent reduction in Pitocin use, 30 per cent fewer requests for pain relief, 30 per cent reduction in forceps or assisted delivery and 25 per cent shorter labour.

“We also see shorter labours with the use of acupuncture or a combination of holistic medicine. The women feel incredibly educated and supported.”

According to Higher Health information “Six weeks after birth, mothers who had Doulas experienced: less anxiety and depression, more confidence with the baby and more satisfaction with their partner.

“Long-term benefits of using a Doula: improved breastfeeding, increased time spent with baby, decreased postpartum depression and more positive maternal assessments of baby’s personality, health and maternal competence.”

A mother of two, O’Neill, 33, concludes, “I just found it to be a more fulfilling experience to have someone that was really supportive to be there. They helped manage the experience, supported my partner and they ultimately remained beautifully calm. Especially when I was not.”

Also playing an important role is Diane Angelopoulos a Nurse Practitioner at Higher Health Pregnancy Care who has 15 years nursing experience in women’s healthcare.

“As a Nurse Practitioner I am able to replace the family physician role as we do similar practice,” said Angelopoulos, who also has a Master’s of Nursing Degree and Advanced Graduate Diploma in Advanced Nursing Practice. “A lot of times, only the mother can attend a doctor’s visit as a lot of husbands will have to take off work for a doctor’s appointment.

“I offer a different service to help ease that issue with scheduling. A lot of my appointments are during evenings or weekends and typically 30 minutes to an hour. Lots of them are also because they have other children that they want to be involved in the care.

“I bring all of my stuff to their house for their appointments and it is a family experience. I let them find the baby’s heartbeat and just to see the look on their face. They are so excited to be part of the process.”

After the initial assessment, visits will include one-on-one care, physical assessments, ordering of lab work, discussion of lab work, prescriptions, ultrasound referrals, copies of all prenatal records and excess time for discussion of all pregnancy issues.

Angelopoulos may also refer clients to Obstetricians.

Offered are various packages including a Postpartum Support Package, which is a unique and also essential service for new mothers.

Angelopoulos’ services, same as the Higher Health Doulas, are private and both may be covered by employer health benefit programs.

For more information on services provided by Higher Health 780-743-0566, download their app or visit their website


Curtis J. Phillips has been a sports journalist in print/electronic mediums since 1976. A strong advocate of volunteerism, he is a founding father of numerous local events and organizations including the Challenge Cup and Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Phillips is also recognized internationally as a sports historian.