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Tribal Treasure


A good share of Tucson’s Yaqui community was delivered by midwife Loretta Lucero Alvarez, 102. Until she was nearly 80, she continued to minister to anyone, Yaqui or not, who needed her at delivery time.

The little clapboard house with the dirt floor bakes in the Tucson heat. To the south, monsoon storm clouds pile up thick, dark and threatening.

It is another muggy afternoon in Old Pascua Village.

Inside the small home, a woman alternately strains, groans and screams. Her only solace is the quiet, calming presence of Nana Loretta, whose quiet voice breathes confidence, and whose soft hands gently massage the woman’s stomach.

Minutes later, another screaming voice supplants the first, and a baby girl tries to squirm her way out of those soft hands that have helped her into this world.

The event could have happened in 1920, or 1970. It doesn’t matter. Loretta Lucero Alvarez has always been there when needed. And her only pay has been hearing the cries of a newborn.

She was born in northern Mexico in 1892 and later married Luis Alvarez, a railroad worker. They lived in Nogales several years before moving to Tucson after World War I.

From the time she was old enough to fetch water or blankets, Loretta Alvarez was involved in helping family members, friends and neighbors give birth. Until she was nearly 80, she continued to minister to anyone, Yaqui or not, who needed her at delivery time.

Now 102 years old, Alvarez is revered as a tribal treasure by all who know her – someone whose loyalty, dedication and love could be counted upon by everyone.

Alvarez became legendary for her use of herbs and prenatal massage to successfully deliver breech babies who otherwise might have died – births that might have killed the mother, too.

A good share of Tucson’s Yaqui community was delivered by Alvarez, until she finally gave in to the effects of aging in her late 70s. With 14 children of her own, there was a steady stream of neighborhood kids through the Alvarez household. Everyone called her “Mama,’ and later, “Nana.’

When Kino Community Hospital began looking for a name for its labor and delivery unit, which depends on certified nurse midwives for many of its deliveries, Loretta Alvarez fit the mold perfectly.

“We wanted to name the facility after someone outside the sometimes cold, stark, clinical world of modern medicine,’ said Dr. Janis Johnson, Kino’s chief executive officer. “We wanted someone who was truly part of the community, someone who exhibited the compassion, love and healing that our nurse-midwife program represents.’

Last Thursday, the labor and delivery unit was officially named for Loretta Alvarez, and the quiet little lady sat in a wheelchair with a bouquet of roses in her lap as dignitaries lauded her dedication through the decades.

Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva noted the difficult times the county-owned facility has survived, and called Kino “the hospital that won’t quit.’

Tucson Vice Mayor Bruce Wheeler lauded Alvarez’s work and urged the Kino staff to “continue the struggle.’

But it was Yaqui tribal leader Arcadio Gastelum who touched the audience most deeply when he spoke of Alvarez.

“I was born in 1940,’ he said, “and she delivered me. I used to go to her house – we all did. I would eat there all the time, and they didn’t care. She would just set another place for me.

“They protected me.

“Then I went into the service, and one of the first things I did was dance together when I got back.“

At 102, Alvarez has outlived her husband and all but two of her children. She lives with her son, Pedro, and his family. Her daughter, Matilda YbaƱez, also lives in Tucson.

“She has her good days and her bad days,’ said Pedro’s wife, Viola. “What she did always came naturally to her. She just loves helping, and she loves children. She now has great-great-grandchildren, and when children are around, she notices and is really happy.

“When she found out they were going to name this place for her, she asked, `Why me?’ We told her it was because of all the people she had helped.

“She never thought of what she did as special, but the people did. It didn’t matter who anyone was, if they needed her to deliver a baby, she came. It wasn’t just Yaquis, either. White people called her, too.

“She is a strong Catholic, and she told us not long ago, `Only by the grace of God have I lived this long.’ ‘

Alvarez, who never attended school, is fluent in both Yaqui and Spanish. With her daughter-in-law interpreting, Alvarez said of the ceremony honoring her, “This makes me very happy. The flowers are beautiful.’

Pedro Alvarez is thrilled that his mother’s lifetime of service is being recognized by such dignitaries.

“Yes, I am very proud of my mother,’ he said.

While refreshments were served inside the labor and delivery unit, which opened two years ago and has delivered about 3,000 babies, Alvarez’s adopted daughter Olga Romero stood beside her wheelchair.

“Everything I’ve learned I know from this lady,’ said Romero, whom Alvarez adopted when Olga was 2 months old. “I always called her Mom, but, then, everyone called her Mom. My friends called her that, too. The neighbors always called her Nana Loretta.’

Midwives attend many births

Kino Community Hospital is the only Tucson area hospital staffed with midwives. Since 1977, when the hospital opened with the midwife program in place, more than 17,000 babies have been born at Kino.

The new labor and delivery unit, which opened in March of 1992, has recorded more than 3,000 births. Half of those involved certified nurse midwives.

The five certified nurse midwives on staff at Kino are Annie Brett, Karen S. Carlson, Cindy Doan, Lynette Bullard and Jody Disney.

Here are some facts provided by Kino Community Hospital about certified nurse midwives locally and nationally:

* There are more than 40 certified nurse midwives practicing in Tucson.

* Certified nurse midwives attended 13 percent of all births in Pima County in 1992.

* In 1992, certified nurse midwives at Kino and at the El Rio Community Health Center attended more than 1,000 births and provided health education and obstetrical care through 12,000 prenatal visits.

* A study by Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in California shows a 13 percent reduction in payroll costs when certified nurse midwives are added to the obstetrical team.

* More than one-third of women and infants seen by certified nurse midwives live below the federal poverty level.

* Certified nurse midwives provide community outreach at Kino Community Hospital, El Rio Community Health Center, St. Elizabeth’s Clinic, Planned Parenthood, Sunnyside School District’s Teenage Parenting Program, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Birth and Women’s Health Center.

- John Jennings

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