Supporters rally to save birthing services in Holyoke

  • A group organized by the Coalition for Birthing Care Access protest the closure of the Birthing Center at Holyoke Medical Center, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 at the intersection of Beech and Northampton streets.

  • Israel Rivera talks with his wife, Jenny Rivera, right, and Jenny's daughter, Mikayla Esquilin, during a protest organized by the Coalition for Birthing Care Access to condemn the closure of Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 at the corner of Beech and Northampton streets in Holyoke. Jenny is holding Isla, 9 months, who was born at the center.

  • Rachael Ingraham and state Rep. Aaron Vega attend a protest Thursday organized by the Coalition for Birthing Care Access to condemn the closure of Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center at the corner of Beech and Northampton streets. Ingraham is part of the coalition and gave birth to her son, Henry, in January. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY RBERTS

  • Pat Duffy, left, talks with Nina Kleinberg talk during a protest, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 organized by the Coalition for Birthing Care Access to condemn the closure of Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center at the intersection of Beech and Northampton streets in Holyoke. Duffy is running for state representative in the 5th Hampden District. Kleinberg was a midwife at the Birthing Center.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2020 7:26:11 PM
Modified: 8/20/2020 7:25:59 PM

HOLYOKE — The sound of drivers approvingly honking their horns filled the intersection of Beech and Northampton streets Thursday as protesters held signs with a simple message: “birthing access = racial justice.”

The protest was a response to Holyoke Medical Center’s plans to close its Birthing Center by Oct. 1, despite the fact that the state Department of Public Health has deemed those services essential to the community. The group Coalition for Birthing Care Access organized the demonstration to urge HMC’s leadership to reverse course and keep the Birthing Center open.

“When someone is pregnant, it is a life-changing event,” said Jane Frey, one of the original midwives at the practice that has delivered babies at Holyoke Medical Center since 2001. “It’s a real time of opportunity to lift people up, and more than the prenatal care and birth control and everything, that was a really important task.”

Frey said she is troubled by the closure of the city’s only birthing services, particularly given the history of negative health outcomes for mothers of color in Holyoke.

One of those at the rally with deep ties to the Birthing Center was Orlando Isaza, a longtime activist in the city. He said that over the years his two children and three of his grandchildren were born with the center’s midwifery practice.

In 1985, infants in Holyoke were dying at a higher rate than anywhere else in the state, with Latina women suffering disproportionately. As a result, a state infant mortality task force convened to make significant changes in the city, including the opening of a prenatal clinic downtown and the hiring of midwives to provide care for the city’s mothers.

Isaza was a part of that task force, so he said it was painful to see that same midwifery practice dismantled by 2019 amid staff allegations that administrators forced out longtime midwives and other employees. And then, in May, the hospital announced it would shutter the Birthing Center.

“It’s sad,” Isaza said. “It’s like history repeating itself in some ways.”

Some of the region’s political figures were present at the rally, including: state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, whose son was born at HMC; Pat Duffy, Vega’s legislative aide and a candidate for his seat in the 5th Hampden District; congressional candidate and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who made a brief appearance; and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

City Councilor Rebecca Lisi was part of the coalition that organized the event. She said she is disappointed that HMC’s CEO, Spiros Hatiras, has not answered questions that city councilors submitted to him weeks ago, despite his promise to respond immediately.

“At a community level, we have really been disappointed by the lack of response from the CEO and board of directors,” Lisi said. “It just really shows there’s a general lack of respect for the Holyoke community … And that’s very concerning when this is an administrator that’s making decisions for our community.”

Ahead of the protest, Hatiras sent a lengthy email to the hospital’s entire staff — obtained by the Gazette — in which he derided the demonstrators, accusing them of politicizing the closure.

“I personally think that the most blatant and inappropriate use has been to appropriate the black lives matter issue and the effort to present the closure of the birthing center as a ‘racist’ act,” Hatiras wrote.

One of the coalition’s organizers, Alicia Fleming of the organization Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, took issue with Hatiras’ suggestion that the Birthing Center closure isn’t a racial justice issue.

“As a black woman who is organizing this effort, I’m appalled he would say we’re appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement,” Fleming said. “I can’t ‘appropriate’ my own culture … His email was incredibly out of touch with the community.”

Former City Council candidate and community advocate Israel Rivera said that the closure represents an issue of structural racism. Rivera’s own daughter, Isla, was born at HMC in November, and he said the facility’s location makes it easy for people with limited transportation to access.

Growing up in the city’s Flats neighborhood, Rivera said his mother would take the bus everywhere. Having seen the difficulties of relying on public transportation, he said he worries for the families that might have to take a bus to Springfield to deliver their children and receive care.

“During the coronavirus pandemic, that doesn’t seem safe at all,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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