Honoring Ellen Harris-Braun


The entire community of the Midwives Alliance of North America is mourning the loss of Ellen Harris-Braun, CPM, and the Director of Database Development for the Midwives Alliance Division of Research. You can learn more about her life and her contributions to her friends, family, and the profession at her obituary here. We asked some of her colleagues at MANA to share with us recollections of time with Ellen, as a way to honor her and share with you our love for her.

If you have stories of Ellen’s life and her contributions that you would like to share, please do so in the comments. We will pass them along to her family.

Bruce Ackerman, Data Collection Director, Division of Research

Ellen became a dear, dear friend, collaborator and teacher since our very first meeting, at the 2003 MANA conference. At that time Ellen attended the Statistics Committee meeting – knowing her now I would totally expect this, because she was intensely curious and passionate about birth and research, planning to progress from being a doula to entering midwifery. We both volunteered to look into a possible web site for data collection, and met after the meeting, when she immediately set about asking everyone who passed in the hallway what they would like to see in such a site. Ellen got right to it, and loved to hear others’ thoughts.

During these thirteen years Ellen, and her partner Eric, wrote the software code for the MANA Stats site, not once but twice as Eric decided to rewrite and improve it. During the same years, this amazing couple founded an intentional Quaker Community, buying land and building all their houses and common building, learning post-and-beam and straw-bale construction on the way. They raised two amazing children. Ellen indeed progressed into midwifery, despite the requirement in New York that she get a master’s – and used her master’s studies to create the first research module on the MANA Stats form. She maintained other web sites, including a writer’s workshop used by hundreds.

Within MANA and the DOR, Ellen became far more than our programmer, serving on the Coordinating Council where she expertly and gently facilitated difficult meetings. Her skill at writing and succinctly explaining things has shown through in everything we have done together, starting with the beautiful web site design itself. Ellen told me early on that she wanted to meet the leaders of the midwifery movement, and indeed she has become one of those leaders.

These thirteen years of working with Ellen are defined for me in a profound way. As I met Ellen, I was receiving word of my mother’s suddenly taking ill, and the next day my mother passed. After some months I found myself with an “opening”, having expected to spend the year with my mother but now spending it in intensely creative work with Ellen and Eric. Like everything I have seen Ellen’s family and community do, Ellen’s care and passing has been a beacon to us all: sensitive to all their many friends, navigating this sadness and suffering with the most profound self-awareness, and leaving a powerful blog that has been and will always be a resource for others in so many ways.

Ellen has left far more than a legacy for midwifery, far more than a guide to consciously dealing with cancer, far more even than a lovely community and extended family. Ellen has lived one of those lives that deeply touches more people than anyone can know, showing us all a life of humor, curiosity, sparkling intelligence, passion, and bringing the very best of herself to every moment. May our lives be worthy of the lessons offered by knowing her.

Melissa Cheyney, PhD, CPM, LDM, Chair, Division of Research

I first met Ellen in 2007 when I got recruited by Peggy Garland to be involved in the MANA Division of Research.  Ellen and others had just completed a process called the “deep review” where they had studied other data collection tools and created what became known as the 3.0 form.  Peggy brought me on board.

I had the pleasure of working with Ellen for the next nine years on many exciting research initiatives.  Ellen is by far the most brilliant person I’ve ever met.  When I think of her there are three things that come to mind.  The first is our early frustration with each other.  That frustration was motivated, at least on my part, by a  part of Ellen that we laughingly came to call “quizzical resting face.”  Ellen was constantly taking information in about the world around her, thinking it through, repackaging it, and expressing it more clearly than anyone else.  One day she explained to me that her furrowed brow  meant that she was listening and synthesizing and not thinking “you are a moron.”  This was a breakthrough in our relationship.  We went on to collaborate with joy and humor on her length of pregnancy study and it is my deepest wish that we see this through to publication posthumously in her name.  The members of the DOR, I am certain, are of like mind; we will make her critical research available to the midwifery community.

The second thing is something I am grateful for.  In 2014 at the St. Louis MANA Conference several members of the Division of Research were unable to attend and Ellen and I were able to room together.  Some of my most cherished memories of Ellen occurred over that long weekend.  I remember joking with her that she was the healthiest sick person that I’d ever met.  She was up early every morning to run, had cut all sugar from her diet, and was so vibrant.  We spent lots of time in our room scrolling through decades of pictures that she had on her laptop.  She also brought a math project from elementary school to show me – a bar graph.  Geeky research humor.  Ellen and I had a respectful professional relationship prior to the conference but left it as close friends, and for that I will always be grateful.

The third thing is a life lesson that Ellen taught me in April of last year.  I was in New York for a speaking engagement and got to spend a day with Ellen in her home and community.  It was not a convenient time to have me and there was a lot going on there.  However, it enabled me to see the incredible love that Ellen had for her children, for Eric, and her community.  Ellen was a fighter.  To me it seems she fought not out of fear of death, but out of her love for her family and community.  I think it was this love that also drove her to becoming a midwife.  I am sure everyone that knows Ellen has similar stories of how profoundly she touched their lives.  For me, she spurred a true existential moment that led me to reevaluate my own life priorities and to find a better balance between work, family, and community.  The MANA Stats is an amazing legacy, but not nearly as important as what she has taught us all about love and community.

I will miss her and yet I do not feel like she is truly gone.  I work on MANA Stats in some form everyday and see her fingerprints and hear her voice there.  She continues to inspire me every day.

As I wrote this, my husband was making pancakes from Eric’s and Ellen’s famed recipe.  Another gift from that weekend spent with them in New York.  Goodbye Ellen and thank you for all that you have done for midwifery and for me and my family (I imagine you are somewhere listening and correcting the grammar of this remembrance.)

Courtney L. Everson, PhD, Director of Research Education, Division of Research

Ellen: a name that means so much, a spirit that embodies so much.

I have known Ellen since 2008, when I was first introduced to the work of the Division of Research (DOR) and became involved. Since 2010, I had the opportunity to work closely with Ellen as a Coordinating Council member of the Division of Research, and I feel forever blessed for the friendship and collegiality she has extended to me over the years. My life—like the lives of so many—has been deeply touched by Ellen. Her spirit is one of brilliance, kindness, wit, and humor! Also, she is a great editor! I have always admired Ellen’s ability to see the details and the big picture; to balance life, work, and family; to operate from a position of integrity and love.

It is difficult to put into words just how Ellen has changed my life; the ways she has impacted my life are felt, and no words can fully represent those feelings. What I can say is that I am a better person because of Ellen, and I know her contributions to this world will be forever cherished and appreciated.

With a heart full of love and admiration for the incredible Ellen Harris-Braun.

Marit Bovbjerg, PhD, MS, Director of Data Quality, Division of Research

Ellen, as you all know, was a computer programmer and a midwife.  Think about that for a minute–a computer programmer AND a midwife.  These are not things that often go together.  As more of a computer and math-minded person, who finds herself working among a sea of midwives, I valued Ellen’s collaboration more than I can say. She was able to walk in both worlds, and for those of us in only one or the other, she was able to communicate effectively, compassionately, and enthusiastically, happily helping to interpret and translate what might otherwise seem strange. I will miss working with her, bouncing ideas off her, walking with her. I will never, though, forget knowing her.

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