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NaPro: Natural Reproductive Technology

Life Science: Dr. Kimberly Barrows offers new approach to natural family planning
 
By Afton Caterina | Photography by Holly Dolci
 
What makes a missionary? Is it serving in foreign countries? Is it sharing the Gospel? Or is it living  counterculturally, experiencing conversion or changing life plans for Christ? For Dr. Kimberly Barrows, a physician partner at Mercy Health, being a missionary has involved all of that. Most recently, it has meant serving her community as the only Natural Reproductive Technology (NaPro) specialist in Grand Rapids.
 
If the term NaPro sounds a little foreign, it is because it is a relatively new field in women’s health care. Natural Reproductive Technology was developed at Creighton University by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, who published the first NaPro textbook in 2004 based on research he began in 1968. NaPro works in cooperation with a woman’s fertility cycle to monitor and treat her reproductive health in a way that is fully in line with Catholic teaching.
 
For Dr. Barrows, providing this option for her patients flows from the missionary spirit that has been
consistent throughout her life. Her professional mission “is to share the good news about natural family
planning and the culture of life.”
 
That mission is rooted in her faith and an intellectual curiosity that would also draw her to the Catholic
Church. Says Dr. Barrows, “God tells us to search for the truth,” something she continues to strive
after both in her practice and in her faith.
 
CALL AND CONVERSION
Kimberly was raised in a faithful Methodist family, yet she says her relationship with Christ truly began
at age 13 at a Christian concert. She accepted God’s mercy and forgiveness, and gave a life-transforming
“yes” to Jesus, a memory that brings tears to her eyes.
 
Her conversion sparked a missionary zeal, forming her desire to serve as a doctor in countries where Jesus was unknown. She joined Campus Crusade for Christ after college, traveling to the Middle East to
share the Gospel in places where it was dangerous to be recognized as a Christian.
 
“I was definitely emboldened,” she says. As a missionary, she learned to depend on the Lord for everything from her salary to getting into medical school.
 
During medical school, she met her future husband, an Air Force officer named Stephen whose conversion exposed Kimberly to an accurate view of the Catholic faith for the first time. She had limited or negative exposure to Catholicism before that.
 
The Church’s teaching on contraception resonated with Stephen’s convictions and made sense to Kimberly.
 
Married by this time, they decided to stop using birth control and to look into natural family planning (NFP).
 
“It was a really inconvenient time for me to get pregnant,” she recalls. Being a doctor, she thought, “I can learn this NFP thing on my own … but three months later, we were pregnant,” she laughs. In hindsight, she was able to identify the mistakes she had made once she was formally trained in NFP.
 
Even though you think you can learn it on your own, you don’t really know it until you take a course.”
 
Soon after their first daughter’s birth in 2001, Stephen entered the Church. His next military tour took
them to Los Angeles, where Kimberly began her first job as a doctor. Though she had not yet become Catholic, her Christian convictions were challenged by colleagues when she refused to prescribe birth control to her unmarried patients. “I was surprised because it seemed we were supposed to be kind of like vending machines where you just say what you want, push the button and it comes out, without much thought on the physician’s part,” she recalls. She argued that there were better options for those women who requested contraception for health reasons and set out to educate herself on the  alternatives.
 
She attended a conference at the California Association of NFP. She met Dr. Hilgers and learned of his training program at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., which teaches physicians “how to treat
these issues (such as heavy periods and infertility) without using birth control, artificial hormones or IVF (in vitro fertilization).”
 
‘I NEEDED THAT LITTLE NUDGE’
As her mind opened to the possibilities that NaPro would create for her career, her heart opened to the
Catholic Church. Kimberly and Stephen joined a parish in California, where the priest took her under his wing. She supplemented RCIA meetings with personal study.
 
After more than a year, and four years after Stephen became Catholic, Kimberly became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. She wanted to convert, yet the strain it would place on her Protestant family held her back.
 
The pastor gave her the courage to step out in faith. “He told me, ‘You are ready'; and he called one of my friends to come and be my sponsor,” recalls Kimberly, tearing up at the memory. “She dropped everything and came right away. So, I became Catholic in the back of the church that day.”
 
It was near the Fourth of July – 22 years, almost to the day, after her initial conversion.
 
She adds, “I was really longing to become Catholic, to take the Eucharist, but I think I just needed that
little nudge, and the Holy Spirit knew that.”
 
A NEW PASSION
A couple of military tours later brought their growing family to Omaha, home of the Pope Paul VI  Institute. Pregnant with their fifth child, Kimberly experienced the institute as a patient and as a physician in the training program.
 
Her studies convinced her that birth-control pills pose more risks than benefits. “We’re treating some-
thing called fertility, which is healthy, with a pill that has very bad side effects. There are hidden
costs to taking it over a long time,” she explains, citing lowered libido, depression and risks of clots or stroke.
 
“The big difference is that birth-control pills stop the cycle. NaProTechnology cooperates with the cycle,” she says.
 
After her training, Stephen retired from the Air Force and the family moved to Grand Rapids. They belong to Sacred Heart Parish and their children attend Sacred Heart Academy. Dr. Barrows joined Mercy Health Physician Partners, opening her practice in May 2015. She partners with women – teens, mothers and grandmothers – through every stage of their reproductive health, and delights in the depth of the relationships she develops with them.
 
“It empowers them that they know more about their body, and I think they feel more cared for by the medical community when they’re involved with NaProTechnology,” she says.
 
Dr. Barrows, as always, is on a mission: “I would love to see this become a center for (NaPro) for Michigan,” she says.
 
RESOURCES
The Franciscan Life Process Center offers Creighton Model FertilityCare services to help women chart their cycle to track times of fertility and infertility, and identify problems.
 
Contact FertilityCare practitioner Georgia Schmitz, a registered nurse, at 616.481.9699 or
gschmitz@lifeprocesscenter.org.
 
The Couple to Couple League offers workshops on natural family planning at local parishes. Visit https://ccli.org/ and click Search/Register for classes.
 
'Not Your Mother's Rhythm Method'
How NaPro helped Miriam and Seth Ashby's faith, family and marriage grow
 
Neither Miriam nor her husband Seth Ashby were raised Catholic, but they credit its teaching on
contraception with drawing them into the Church’s embrace.
 
“Up until that point, I thought taking birth control was just what you did when you got married,” says Miriam. “Once it was questioned, though, it made me want to learn more about the Catholic faith. I
thought, 'If they’re going to stand firm on this teaching in today’s day and age, what other truths are they courageous enough to stand firm on?'”
 
Seth and Miriam joined the Church before they were married, in 1999 and 2001, respectively. They belong to St. Isidore Parish in Grand Rapids.
 
The Church teaches that the sexual union of husband and wife has a twofold purpose: “the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life.” (CCC 2363) In order to fully embrace both, couples who
have serious reason not to conceive a child are encouraged to use natural family planning.
 
The Creighton method of NFP is the foundation for Natural Reproductive Technology (NaPro), a relatively new field that works with a woman’s fertility cycle to monitor and treat reproductive health issues. It
relies on the tracking of hormonal changes, or biomarkers, observed by the woman and evaluated by a NaPro physician.
 
“NaPro is a fertility-care based medical approach rather than a fertility-control approach to family planning and gynecological health,” says Dr. Kimberly Barrows, a NaPro specialist in Grand Rapids. “Our goal is to heal the cycle whenever possible, especially if a woman is trying to conceive.”
 
Infertility, PMS and miscarriage can be symptoms of a deeper health issue. While mainstream fertility treatments focus on the symptoms, NaPro focuses on the cause of the problem and works to heal it
naturally using supplements, natural hormone treatments and, in some cases, corrective surgery, says Dr. Barrows.
 
“To people who are skeptical and nervous, I would say it is not your mother’s rhythm method,” says Miriam. “I think people don’t understand just how well-researched today’s methods are.”
 
Miriam and Seth learned this firsthand last year when, after being blessed with four healthy pregnancies, they encountered difficulty conceiving. Dr. Barrows identified a deficiency in Miriam’s progesterone levels, a hormone vital for conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy.
 
“She was able to monitor my progesterone levels the whole time,” says Miriam. “Every two weeks, I had blood work sent out to the lab (at the Pope Paul VI Institute) in Omaha. We are thankful, because we just had our fifth boy!”
 
“I think (NFP) is one of the best kept secrets of a successful marriage,” Miriam shares. “You’re not withholding anything from your spouse; you’re embracing the fact that your fertility is both of you, not just the woman. It’s an important thing to talk and pray about and to have God (in) that part of your relationship.”