“Essentially I was dying and didn’t know it,” says Sarah McCann, sitting under the pergola in the backyard of her gorgeous Quarryville home. Surrounded by protected farmland, a lake, a stream, a lounge area for hammocks and bonfires, and a house-like roost for peacocks, Sarah’s home is the epitome of peace and serenity. Sarah’s last few years have been anything but tranquil, however.
In September 2015, Sarah was driving to her job at an early education center. There was light rain, and she ended up overturning her car. She was able to climb out of the vehicle on her own, but emergency personnel insisted she go to the hospital, where they performed a CT scan on her head. Sarah recalls, “They came out to me and they said, ‘The good news is, you’re fine from the accident. The bad news is, you need to have this looked at.’” “This” turned out to be one of the largest chiari malformations the doctors had ever seen.
“Essentially what it means,” Sarah explains, is the back of your head is too small for your brain. And so what happens is your brain becomes pushed down and rests on your spinal column, and all of your cerebrospinal fluid gets clogged up. It turned out I was running on 5% cerebrospinal fluid, where the average person is 85 to 100%.”
Sarah’s neurologist told her that she needed to have surgery quickly. Her chiari formation was located right next to her brainstem, and the doctors were scared that she might become paralyzed, become incontinent, or even die. “We joke now that it was a life-saving car accident,” she laughs. After searching for specialists in Philadelphia, Sarah settled on a surgeon in Pittsburgh and underwent a rigorous procedure to remove part of her skull and push her brain back into the correct position. “When they removed the skull, they had to make space and then this particular surgeon put a 25-screw, titanium plate in the back of my head,” Sarah notes matter-of-factly.
Before her surgery, Sarah had always been involved in early education. However, the timing worked out that her teaching contract expired at the school where she was teaching when the accident occurred. While she recovered from her difficult surgery, Sarah found herself perusing social media sites.
One day, she came upon a site for the Carriage House Birth Foundation. “They’re located in New York City and they’re kind of like, this is so cheesy, but they’re kind of like celebrity doulas,” Sarah says. “ They were going to have their first ever doula training, and I had some months to get myself healed well enough to go and get myself to New York City and take the training. And it was kind of like the stars aligned, I kind of felt like one door closed and other doors were opening, and I would be a fool not to try to take this opportunity… and that’s exactly what I did.”
When she first came home from surgery, Sarah couldn’t walk without a walker. She set a goal to be able to walk well enough to attend the doula training in New York City. After meeting that goal, she continued taking classes and became a certified doula. As a young mother, Sarah had amazing experiences with the midwives during her son’s birth that prompted her to want to help other women in the same position.
She elaborates, “I do not do any sort of medical work. I’m there for emotional support, physical support, and spiritual support. So empathetic touch is huge… And I also do work with essential oils… I’ve also started learning to make tinctures, which is really exciting.”
Sarah also helps parents-to-be advocate on behalf of themselves with the medical community to make sure they get the birth experience they are hoping for. “It’s a delicate dance,” Sarah clarifies, “between not stepping on toes and figuring out how to still really empower a woman so she can have the birth, whatever it looks like, that makes her feel good at the end of the day.”
In addition to her work as a personal doula, Sarah has also returned to Millersville University to take courses to become a psychologist: “It’s huge because it would have been really easy to just lay down and die or get stuck in a rut, you know? But my goal, my longterm goal—and it could take me forever, who knows with my illness—but I want to become a clinical psychologist so I can counsel people, whether it be marriage counseling, or prenatal or postpartum work, or even transitions for siblings. My goal is to marry the two practices— clinical psychology with doula work—which I think is a really unique thing and I haven’t seen it anywhere, let alone in Lancaster County.”