Profiles in Advocacy: Susan Vierczhalek

Dr. Vierczhalek directs the newborn nursery at Bellevue Hospital, and also works on various maternal-child health advocacy issues. Serving as the Breastfeeding Coordinator for the AAP New York State Chapter Three and as a member of both city- and state-wide breastfeeding coalitions, she has worked to encourage breastfeeding by changing public perceptions of breastfeeding and giving mothers the tools they need to feed their babies.

What makes breastfeeding such a big issue?

All over, the promotion of breastfeeding is being viewed as an important public health measure, because of all the strong medical evidence that it improves the health of both mothers and children. But we’re not doing so well with meeting breastfeeding goals. More and more people are hearing that this is important; they’re choosing to do it, but they’re not successful… so we have work to do. There’s a huge problem now with the ACA and breastfeeding support. Under women’s health, several services are supposed to be funded, because they’re prevention, including breastfeeding support. The problem with it is they made the broad overall statement that these things should be funded, but they didn’t give the specifics of it. We’ve been hearing mothers all over the place saying “I can’t get my insurance to pay for this,” or “they won’t pay for an appropriate pump,” so it’s really a mess. We’re trying to promote [breastfeeding] as the norm–not something special, not something extra, not a lifestyle choice, but the normal way to feed a baby that’s healthy for moms and babies. It’s not rocket science, it’s feeding babies.

Do you have any particular success stories?

The first week in August is World Breastfeeding Week, and we just had a celebration last week, it’s called the Breastfeeding Subway Caravan. We started that because one of our patients in our clinic told one of our nurses that she had been given a ticket for indecent exposure by an MTA police officer for breastfeeding at a subway stop, which is contrary to the law in New York state. In New York state, it’s considered a civil right to breastfeed anywhere you’re legally allowed to be. So she told the nurse, and the nurse told me, and she said, “what are we going to do about this?” When we were in this council trying to decide on an event for World Breastfeeding Week, we came up with the subway caravan. We basically take the A train from 168th Street all the way to Bed-Stuy. So that’s a lot of fun. Nobody really looks twice anymore, but it’s really just kind of a celebration now. A little bit of a consciousness-raising thing.

What is a challenge you’ve had to face in breastfeeding advocacy?

Years ago, we approached Liz Krueger, who is a state senator. After researching and working with her staff, she came back and said, “we’ve decided we’re going to pursue a breastfeeding bill of rights.” Just to kind of enumerate what people’s rights are as far as breastfeeding. “The reason I want to start with this,” she said, and I’ll never forget this; these were her words and I’ve quoted them back to her: “this will be simple, it’s a no-brainer, it won’t cost anything, and once we get this passed, we can build from this and work on some of the harder issues.” It took five years to get that passed. There were many ups and downs, opposition from people you wouldn’t expect there to be opposition from, and crazy New York politics, too.

How can others get involved in breastfeeding advocacy, or advocacy in general?

Raise their hands! I think there’s many different ways. The first is raise awareness, and then sign up. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do, especially with the various coalitions and things. It’s good to be interested, it’s good to be supportive, but we’re trying to get people involved on committees, and to work on initiatives… [For advocacy in general,] expect the unexpected. Try to form alliances with other interested parties–you never know where you’re going to find support. Keep trying, because I think sometimes when the time is right, you can get things done.