This week, our local hospital announced that it was closing the Maternity Ward, effective October 1st. Our community was immediately vocal, expressing outrage, disbelief, and sadness. The opinions were filled with rage and confusion.
Over the past 20 years, the hospital had undergone massive renovations under the auspices of becoming more competitive and state-of-the-art. The network running the show – the names are no longer important because that network has changed too many times – had what we now know to be delusions of grandeur, but we in the community were reluctantly along for the ride, as long as our access to healthcare was not only continuous, but vastly improved.
We observed, warily, as the hospital’s health system bought out the neighborhood directly to the southeast of it, razing houses and historic buildings and re-zoning and even eliminating side streets.
In 2007, Hamsher House, the original site of our hospital, which was built in 1917, was demolished in order to make way for 50 additional parking spaces. This building had become a school of nursing when the present-day hospital was built, then was sold to the University of Pittsburgh. Eventually, it was sold back to the hospital and used as doctors’ offices. The explanation for the demolition was chronicled in the local newspaper, and can be read here. Their reasons were perfunctory and typical for a big, corporate monster chewing up and spitting out obstacles. “Out with the old; in with the new.”
That 72×18-foot garden? Basically a bunch of shrubbery and perennials off to the side of what is now the hospital’s main entrance. With a bench. My garden in front of my house, while certainly not upscale, is more interesting to visit.
We continued to ingest the press releases and ribbon-cuttings and announcements of new specialists moving into the area to provide us with closer options, instead of the realities many semi-rural and rural communities face: if you need specialized care, you’re going to have to travel to the big city. In our case, it was always Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. Some are 100 miles away; some 200. That’s quite a trek for anybody, and when you’re sick? Being able to get your chemotherapy 5 or 10 or 15 minutes’ distance from home is a major improvement on a 2-hour drive to Buffalo.
For a very short-lived time, all seemed good. The hospital was beautifully renovated and whole wings added on. It became a massive, steel and glass puzzle to navigate, but that’s the price we pay for progress, right? In 2012, I had a heart catheterization there in our state-of-the-art cath lab. Just a few, short years before, I would have been “sent out”. It was so comforting to be five minutes away from home for a procedure that petrified the fuck out of me.
Then, suddenly, the gears began grinding; softly at first, then a little louder. Doctors began leaving for “other opportunities.” There were rumors of unrest between the hospital’s network and those doctors. Then, our health system was changing. It was announced that our hospital would be consolidating – partnering, so to speak – with a hospital 25 miles away, across the Pennsylvania border, in New York. I chronicle that in the following piece, which I wrote on Friday, when the news that our hospital was now going to cease delivering babies, broke. The hospital’s official statement can be read here, if you’re interested in their mealy-mouthed explanation, citing declining births and such.
I know that many, many rural areas are watching this very same scenario happen. We aren’t unique, or special. But in a country that has given carte-blanche to insurance companies, essentially allowing them to maintain a chokehold on patients as consumers, and not with compassion and the very tenets that the Hippocratic Oath spells out, when are we going to insist that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, ALL-FUCKING-READY?
Our healthcare system is broken, and yet we are allowing a certain demographic in this country to continue to hand over power to the 1%. It’s business as usual for them; they don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies; they just know how to capitalize on an industry. Yes, that’s right: healthcare is an industry. Every time you get sick, or a family member does, a corporate CEO gets gets his wings. In this case, it’s a lear jet.
So, without further ado, here is my editorial, if you will. Call it my shot over the healthcare business’s bow. It caused a little stir in this sleepy little town, and I submitted it to the local newspaper after private and public messages to do so, daring that conservative publication to print me. “You’re a writer,” one person said, “and we need your voice!”
Consider this my roar.
Years of mismanagement by CEOs and a hospital that tried to grow too big for the area it served has been culminating in a facility that ships its patients out, rather than keeping them, when a condition proves just a tad bit complicated. Every day, we in Bradford hear the whirr of rotating wings as the medivac helicopter lands to whisk a patient off to Buffalo, to Erie, or to Pittsburgh. The ambulance services work overtime to transport patients who aren’t stable enough for the air transport, or in inclement weather. This adds up to massive profits for those services, since a medivac transport costs as much as $40k and ambulance transport – even from your house to the hospital – has skyrocketed in cost. This is healthcare as a business, people, and it isn’t progressive, or more advanced, or state-of-the-art. It is services gouging the consumer; the injured, sick, stressed consumer. It is big insurance business. It is criminal.
When my mother was rushed to the hospital that last time, almost 7 years ago, it was decided that her developing pneumonia required treatment at a “more skilled” facility 100 miles away. More skilled? What, exactly, was this behemoth hospital we were at, with its many wings, departments, and skilled staff?
This community had watched as houses were razed to create parking lots for 3 blocks. We had watched as “advanced, state-of-the-art systems” and testing machinery and whole wings of advanced care (the Cardiac Suite, for one) were brought in, and new specialists joined the staff. We saw outpatient services open all over town, from a lab downtown to hospital-contracted physicians’ offices. Historic buildings were torn down to add on to an older hospital, creating a maze of hallways and more than a little confusion. Whereas at one time, you walked through the front doors to a lobby and took a elevator to the floor you needed for whatever reason, be it tests or to visit someone, NOW you had to enter through a DIFFERENT lobby and access a different set of elevators depending on your destination. The front became the back; the back became the place where you could go left, to one set of elevators that couldn’t take you to the area of the hospital you needed; that one was down the hall on your right, winding along another hallway, and to your left.
Confusing? Yes. But progress! It was going to make our hospital a cutting-edge center of diagnostics, of surgeries, of specialized care. Progress! That’s the line we were fed. Healthcare professionals rejoiced at the idea of being involved in something so exciting. We, the public, weighed our discomfort at a new, confusing system and thought, “At least we’ll get the best care here.”
Then? The specialists began to leave town, citing a myriad of reasons. The cardiologist you began treatment with would leave and a new one would come and you’d have to establish a new relationship; then HE would leave, too. Then? An unexpected merger with a nearby New York State hospital. Staff was either moved or let go to allow for the staff in the New York hospital to work here, or vise-versa. There were rumors of salary cuts. Whole jobs were disappeared. There were layoffs. A laundry list of predictive events began occuring: transporting patients out; sending patients to other facilities for tests or treatments; rumors of executives making money hand over fist while the quality of care suffered overall. Who cared if that shiny, expensive lobby had marbel floors and welcoming seating and a patient concierge service and a boutique-level gift shop? We wanted to be cared for; to be made well again.
My mother was to be moved to Erie for her pneumonia. Her blood oxygen levels were hovering at 90-92%. They were rapidly stabilizing just being in the ER. The decision was made to move her, and we left ahead of her to get there as quickly as we could, to meet her there. While enroute, about an hour into the trip, I was called and notified that they had “wanted to medivac (never discussed while we were at the hospital), but the visibility was poor due to rain.” Instead, they were loading her into the ambulance when “suddenly” her blood oxygen bottomed out and they had to intubate.
While I would never, ever suggest that BRMC killed my mother, I do believe that the decision to move her was a mistake, and contributed to her lightning-fast decline over two days. Intubating her then – I believe because the stress of the move caused her stats to drop – almost certainly signed her death certificate. She went on life support and never came off; that is, until I had to make that decision for her. Sure, she had amazing care in Erie, but they were fighting a battle that was exacerbated by poor decision-making at home. Despite their advanced care and superlative staff of rns, specialists, and hospitalists, my mother was doomed to never leave that hospital at the moment OUR hospital chose to send her there. She might have died anyway, sure. But she would have done that here, at home, where we could be with her ’round the clock. Empathetic care cannot ever be downplayed. Now, she is gone, and the massive bills incurred just over 2 days seem like blasphemous footnotes to me.
Today, the news was announced that we would be losing our Maternity/Women’s health wing. It will close its doors on October 1st. This is an enormous, tragic blow to this community. After October 1st, there will no longer be any babies born in Bradford. Their parents will have to drive 25, 45, or more miles away to give birth. This seems inexplicable to me; two of my deliveries were there, my hysterectomy was performed there, and five of my grandchildren were born there. We have been very fortunate in this semi-rural community to have had the ability to have our children in a hospital just 2-10 minutes from home. I know other communities have not been that lucky. I can’t even imagine the added stress and worry that expectant mothers will encounter knowing that the hospital they’ll need to get to for delivery is, at a minimum, 30 minutes away. 30 minutes is a crucial amount of time, and things can change very quickly when you’re bringing a tiny human into the world. Let us not even begin to contemplate the many reasons why infant mortality rates are high in a country that should be number one in healthy, viable births; this kind of scenario likely contributes.
The news, though, is devastating to the community and to the truly excellent staff, and further demoralizes an area that can’t take much more. Something HAS to give, and while I will not point fingers at the current administration in DC – because the wheels that would bring us to this conclusion began turning more than a decade ago – I will point out that nothing will be fixed while tycoons and their special interests run this country. We deserve so much better. Don’t we?