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Nursing and holistic health graduate creates water birth program

Karen Sonnenburg '03, MAHS '12 holds the March of Dimes Nurse of the Year for Women's Health award.
Karen Sonnenburg '03, MAHS '12 holds the March of Dimes Nurse of the Year for Women's Health award.
Photo submitted.

When her name was called as the winner of the March of Dimes Nurse of the Year for Women’s Health award, Karen Sonnenburg ’03, MAHS ’12 felt like she’d won the Academy Award of nursing.

Nominated by three of her peers at Family Birth Place, a labor, delivery and postpartum unit at St. Francis Regional Medical Center, she was among hundreds of nominees for a series of March of Dimes awards honoring nurses in 2012.

Without saying her name, the emcee described the nurse who had won the award as a leader in integrative health who spearheaded a water birth program at her hospital. The truth is that Sonnenburg’s passion for holistic medicine has affected staff and patients at St. Francis in more ways than an emcee could mention during a packed presentation.

“I see how integrative medicine along with conventional medicine, when needed, can yield the best results,” says Sonnenburg. “Using integrative techniques like breathing, relaxation, aromatherapy and massage help people to relax and stay balanced. When this happens the body is better able to heal.”

Sonnenburg credits her St. Kate’s undergraduate nursing education in the weekend program and the Master of Arts in Holistic Health Studies program for teaching her to live her values and advocate for change.

Unpredictable pathways

A “charge” nurse, Sonnenburg oversees nurses in the labor and delivery unit, while continuing to work with patients. She didn’t know where a master’s degree in holistic health studies would take her, but she was determined to incorporate a holistic approach to health in her nursing career. 

Now she looks at every patient as an individual affected by the mental, emotional and physical aspects of their lives. “The more I have learned about how to care for people holistically, the more rewarding my work has become,” she says. 

As an undergraduate Sonnenburg says, “I loved my St. Kate’s experience. St. Kate’s is a really empowering place for women to be.”

Having developed a keen passion for integrative medicine, she enrolled in St. Kate’s Master of Arts in Holistic Health Studies program, despite the pressures of working and earning a degree.

She cut her nursing hours to three-quarters time during her three-and-a-half years back in the program, but also taught Transformative Nurse Training classes to teach nurses how to add a holistic approach to patient care. She had trained to teach the class at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Medicine plunges into water birthing 

When Sonnenburg was asked to start a water birth program at St. Francis, her leadership skills merged with her interest for holism. In water birthing, women in labor relax in the tub and eventually give birth in the water. At St. Francis, the nurses have added candles, aromatherapy and music to make the experience even more inviting.

“It’s a spiritual experience to watch a baby born under such natural circumstances,” Sonnenburg says.

The water birth program at St. Francis had used a big inflatable tub, but due to the popularity of water birth, the medical center has now allocated the funds to build a permanent tub. Sonnenburg couldn’t be happier.

"I feel a woman’s birth story is a life-changing event which has the ability to empower her as a woman and mother, and I feel blessed to be a part of this process of growth and transformation,” she says. She supports conventional and alternative birth options so women can choose the experience they want to have.  

Never without a pet project, Sonnenburg is now working on introducing a meditation room, which the hospital calls a “staff renewal space,” and she is starting a doula program. Doulas offer physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after childbirth.

A journey with mandalas

Sonnenburg's holistic health education has also lead to a new venture outside the hospital with three other recent graduates with whom she conducted research on the art of mandala making.

Mandalas are images created within a circular shape in any size and medium. In health care settings, the making of mandalas is used in therapies for people with diagnoses including ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder and AIDS.

The four graduates are starting a business presenting mandala workshops to groups in schools, corporations and other organizations.

As her career takes each new twist, Sonnenburg has learned to stay open to possibilities and be a patient, persistent voice for change.

The changes she’s a part of reflect how she’s transforming her life, she says, quoting Ghandi’s famous words: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Feb. 11, 2013 by Elizabeth Child

See also: Alumnae/i, Healthcare, Leadership