‘An honor to be there’: A day in the life of a UNC doula

By Sasha Schroeder

A pregnant woman arrived by helicopter alone at UNC Hospitals in February 2020. She was in labor, 15 weeks earlier than expected.

Medics rushed the woman inside, where Hannaneh Mirmozaffari was in the middle of her doula shift. Not realizing the woman was only 24 weeks pregnant, Mirmozaffari reassured her everything was going to be okay.

At just 21 years old, Mirmozaffari is used to being at the bedsides of strangers on the most intense days of their lives; as a volunteer doula, she provides physical, educational and emotional support for mothers before, during and after childbirth. She holds their hands, gets them water, massages their backs and helps them breathe through their contractions. In the dizzying commotion that labor and delivery rooms can be, she is a source of steady comfort.

Mirmozaffari worried she’d given the woman false hope when she discovered the baby’s due date was months away. She had already helped one mother give birth earlier in the day, but it had gone smoothly and the baby had been ready. This baby wasn’t.

Out of nowhere, the woman’s family flooded the room. They had been driving to Chapel Hill behind the helicopter as fast as they could. Mirmozaffari remembered the husband having a slow, sweet southern drawl that stood in sharp contrast to the chaos around her.

Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks while the obstetrician told her there was a possibility the baby would die. She offered to take a video of the fetal monitor so the woman would be able to have the heartbeat as a memory.

As she watched a nurse record the heartbeat, Mirmozaffari thought about how she was trained to witness birth. She wasn’t sure she was ready to witness death.

She took a deep breath, swallowed and tried to help the woman slow down her pushing while the doctors explained what was about to happen. She wasn’t going to let her emotions cloud her judgment.

“It’s not about me,” Mirmozaffari said. “If the baby lives or dies, it’s my job to help Mom. It’s not my sadness to feel.”

Someone called out, saying the neonatal intensive care unit was ready to receive the baby. By that time, eight doctors had gathered in the room — six for the baby and two for the soon-to-be mother.

A job full of life

Mirmozaffari never gets tired of witnessing childbirth.

“It’s a very monumental moment,” she said. “It’s an honor to be there.”

The baby girl arrived in the world weighing less than a pound. Her father quickly cut her umbilical cord and doctors whisked her away.

“We were all so scared for a few minutes,” Mirmozaffari said. “I held the mom’s hand and her husband held her other. They prayed, and I prayed too.”

For a few minutes, the baby’s heartbeat was too low. The doctors placed her on a ventilator, wrapped her in plastic to trap her body heat and gave her oxygen. The sight was jarring.

Mirmozaffari couldn’t help but hope the woman would be able to watch the baby girl’s already thick, dark hair grow for years to come.

Her hopes weren’t in vain. 

Alhamdulillah, she lived,” Mirmozaffari said. 

Two cultures in one

Alhamdulillah is an Arabic phrase that Muslims — regardless of whether they speak Arabic — use to thank God.

Mirmozaffari speaks English and Farsi. She switches seamlessly between the two when speaking to her family on the phone and routinely drops “y’all” into conversations with a grin. She is both an American and an Iranian, and for her, these identities do not conflict. 

She thinks of herself as “100 percent North Carolinian and 100 percent Persian,” which, when added together, explains her endless zest. She is a doula, a gardener, a barista, a rock climber, a mountain biker, a reader and a writer.

Ornate, jewel-toned Persian rugs carpet Mirmozaffari’s bedroom and topographical maps of the Blue Ridge Mountains cover her walls. Nestled in those mountains are her favorite climbing routes, bike trails and hikes. Photos taken at concerts in Carrboro are collaged above her desk along with photos taken during teatime in Tehran, Persepolis and Isfahan. 

Her desk is stacked with books of all kinds. Fittingly, Mirmozaffari is studying medical anthropology as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, with minors in chemistry and creative writing. She can often be found reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, studying anatomy or scribbling furiously in the margins of one of her favorite books, “All the King’s Men.”  

One photo above her books shows her in a UNC t-shirt and a hijab, standing in the middle of a river in the mountains surrounding Tehran three summers ago. Since 1983, women in Iran have been required to wear a headscarf and loose-fitting clothing, meaning they can’t determine what to wear in public for themselves.

Mirmozaffari chooses to wear a hijab no matter where she is. She thinks a lot about the assumptions people have about her simply because she chooses to cover her hair; she thinks a lot about how people always point out how outgoing and outspoken she is. She wonders if they would say anything if she didn’t wear a hijab.

“People assume I am certain in my faith, or that I’ve figured something out that other people haven’t because I wear hijab,” Mirmozaffari said.

She hasn’t. Wearing a hijab is a deeply personal choice, just like anything else.

Everything that Mirmozaffari does — for school, work or fun — is personal. It is not in her nature to stop short of throwing herself fully into everything she does.

Her next great adventure, she hopes, will be medical school. She wants to practice rural family medicine so she can increase access to care for families who need it most while being surrounded by her beloved mountains. Her interest in medicine stems from her love of people and family, blood or otherwise.

She recalled how the woman who gave birth prematurely kept thanking her. “We’re family now,” the woman said, over and over. 

Mirmozaffari’s family grows all the time.

Edited by Parker Brown