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Davia Knowlton has helped welcome thousands of Maine children into the world during her nearly 50 years as a nurse in the labor and delivery unit of Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
One colleague described Knowlton, a charge nurse who has long played a supervisory role in the unit, as its “heart and soul.” Some parents have even been moved to name their newborn daughters after her.
Now, at the age of 67 and in the middle of a pandemic, Knowlton has just retired from her long career. Or at least, she has mostly retired: While Monday was officially her last day, she will still do some training and other work on a per diem basis.
“I’ll keep my hand in, but I also hope to enjoy more time with family,” she said during an interview. “It’s amazing with any medical profession, you miss a lot of holidays and family gatherings. The job is comprehensive, and hospitals are open 24/7.”
That job has changed considerably since Knowlton first started working at EMMC 43 years ago. Before that, she also spent about four years working in the labor and delivery unit of St. Joseph Hospital before that unit closed in 1977.
Some of the most taxing changes have just happened in the past few months, as the spread of the new coronavirus has forced providers to wear masks all day and sometimes throw on additional protective equipment while treating patients who might have COVID-19, the illness the virus causes.
“It’s been quite a dramatic change,” she said. “It’s physically a little more demanding.”
Many other changes have happened over a longer stretch of time. The maternity unit has moved around to different sections of EMMC as the hospital has grown.
The technology has evolved, too, with computerized records replacing the handwritten notes of old. Improvements in sonography have allowed pregnant mothers to learn much more information before the delivery, including the exact number of new family members to expect.
“It used to be fun, before we did a lot of ultrasounds, to get unexpected twin deliveries: folks coming in and thinking they’re having one, and then it would appear there is another one on board,” Knowlton said. “That was always an exciting time.”
She also recalled one time that a family was surprised by the arrival of three new children. “I haven’t gone any further than triplets,” she added.
Asked what memories stand out from her career, Knowlton quickly pointed to the November 1996 abduction of a newborn baby boy from EMMC while she was on duty.
In that case, a woman dressed as a nurse walked into a hospital room and took the infant from his mother’s arms. The infant was unharmed, and the woman was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison on a felony kidnapping conviction.
“It’s never good to end up on the front page,” Knowlton said. “I think I lost five years off my life that day. That affected everybody, but everybody performed really well that day under the circumstances.”
She continued, “The maternity unit is a place of great happiness and great sadness. People do lose their pregnancies, and that’s not talked about a great deal, but that affects everyone on the unit, and of course, the occasional maternal death, that affects everyone as well.”
But there have been plenty of highs in Knowlton’s career as well.
She enjoys the “real rush” of helping bring “a normal, healthy baby” into the world, she said, as well as the experience of seeing those babies years later. She works with two nurses whom she helped deliver, and some others have grown up and come back to the hospital to give birth themselves.
“I get a kick out of that,” she said. “You say, ‘They turned out well.’”
Knowlton has also earned the respect of her colleagues by providing them with steady training and support on the job, according to another EMMC nurse, Kym Harkins. She has brought bagels to her colleagues every Sunday, and throughout the year, she has collected bottles from them to raise funds to buy gifts for needy kids during the holidays.
“Davia is a humble person who doesn’t seek the limelight,” Harkins said. “However, her contribution to nursing and the community is beyond measure.”
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