For this community healer, life is a friendly mystery

Imagine Janice Marsh-Prelesnik standing in the center of a circle. Her life, after all, is all about circles. Circles and life cycles, as the community grandmother and founder of Creative Health Arts in Galesburg nurtures newborns into the world as a midwife; children and young parents to a good start in building family foundations; adults into natural health habits with the use of herbs; and, finally, soothes the ill and aging through the life cycle into a peaceful passage beyond.    
 
"I always dreamt of being the community healer." Marsh-Prelesnik smiles, sitting by her window that overlooks acres of herbs growing along a winding creek. Birds are in constant flight beyond her window, feeding at a row of bird feeders: hummingbirds, warblers, grosbeaks. 
 
"I am the grandma for everybody," she says with a laugh. Her eyes wander to a photograph on her living room wall. Marsh-Prelesnik's voice grows softer still when she speaks of her own grandmother. 
 
"My grandmother was a healer," she says. "Her father made her quit school in the eighth grade, and so she started to work for a country doctor at the age of 13 or so. She saw births, she stayed with the new moms for two weeks after their children were born. For a 24-hour day, she was paid 25 cents. She had an herb-gathering basket, and she picked herbs to help the mothers."
 
Marsh-Prelesnik grew up on a farm in the Michigan town of Sunfield, and, like her grandmother, she witnessed births, she experienced the health benefits of herbs, and she watched the life cycles of the animals around her. 
 
Unlike her grandmother, Marsh-Prelesnik stayed in school and earned a graduate degree. Yet her roots held her close, and her interests developed along the paths her grandmother had traveled before her. 
 
What she learned, she says, was more from the farm and from her own studies than from college classrooms and textbooks. "I learned from watching animals give birth that when birthing becomes difficult, the animals get up and move around. What I learned on the farm was that I could drink raw milk, but when I drank pasteurized milk, I couldn't tolerate it. What I learned from playing as a child playing in big drums that had contained pesticides for the crops, was that I felt sick afterward. All of these things," Marsh-Prelesnik nods, "all of these lessons led me to the life I live today."
 
Creative Health Arts offers midwifery before, during, and after births at home, including parenting classes. Marsh-Prelesnik offers gentle touch massage for stress reduction. She teaches classes about coping strategies. She teaches classes on herbalism and consults with clients on how to use herbs for good health. And because one of her degrees is in music, she also provides music, singing and playing a variety of instruments to ease the elderly and the ill at their end of their life journey in hospice. 
 
"My degree is in expressive arts therapy," she says. "My work has been in a way like retro trailblazing," she chuckles. "I've come full circle back to my roots."
 
Marsh-Prelesnik birthed all four of her own children at home, and it was during that experience that her interest in midwifery was born, too. "I apprenticed in Grand Rapids, and I practiced in Lansing. By now, I've attended hundreds of births. Mothers and babies deserve the best. Why not choose the simpler ways? It's not always the answer, but many times it is."
 
At a point in her life when Marsh-Prelesnik had no health insurance, she found herself in a hospital for two weeks, needing care. "They accepted my offer to volunteer at hospice as part of my payment." Today, she practices throughout Calhoun County, wherever people need hospice care. She sings, plays the piano, chants, "or I sit quietly with people. Sometimes I sing to women in labor, too."
 
Having seen the practice of medicine from both sides--conventional medicine in the healthcare system and home medicine by traditional methods that have passed the tests of time--Marsh-Prelesnik observes: "People tend to think that what they create is the best way. But we need to consider that there are other ways, too. 
 
"I’m waxing philosophical." Marsh-Prelesnik smiles. "But in America we tend to build on the assumption that everything is going to go wrong. I function on the assumption that life will go right."
 
The herbs that Marsh-Prelesnik uses in health care, and teaches others to use, she says have been used for centuries, "while pharmaceuticals are the riskiest behavior of all. We get into cars every day and don't consider how dangerous they are, but statistically it is safer to have a baby than to drive a car. We could choke on the food we eat, but we still eat."
 
In other words, she advises, we need to understand herbs to use them properly, but herbs can be a safe means of caring for our health. Nature is chaotic, Marsh-Prelesnik says, and sometimes even brutal, but we can learn the lessons of nature for our benefit. 
 
"Everything I do is individualized. When I work with someone to advise what herbs they might use, at first I must understand the individual and their natural processes." She smiles again, her eyes wandering back to the birds at her feeders. "Life is a friendly mystery."
 
Marsh-Prelesnik lists classes and consultations on the Creative Health Arts page on Facebook, and she recently also started a non-profit effort called "Nurturing from Hart," providing expressive arts therapy for preschoolers and infants. Her classes are held in various organizations across the area, including Ministry with Community, Parent to Parent of Southwest Michigan, and others. 
 
"Much of my work is with low-income to moderate-income mothers," she says. "Some of these young mothers don't even know how to rock a baby; all they have known in their own lives is violence. I teach them how to sing a lullaby."
 
Marsh-Prelesnik begins to hum. "My grandma sang to me … 'I love you truly.' I have two grandbabies now, and I hope I can have as much of an impact on them as my grandmother did on me."
 
Janice Marsh-Prelesnik can be reached at 269.599.4237.
 
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.   

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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