A ‘gem’ in the community: Former patients of Birthing Center react to announced closure

  • Zoraida Rivera of Holyoke with her newborn son, Noel, in 2019. Rivera gave birth at Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center, which she credits with saving her life after she developed postpartum preeclampsia. ORANGE SHUTTER STUDIOS

  • Zoraida Rivera of Holyoke with her newborn son, Noel, and her husband, Dollvy, in 2019. Rivera gave birth at Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center, which she credits with saving her life after she developed postpartum preeclampsia. ORANGE SHUTTER STUDIOS

  • Nina Kleinberg, a former nurse midwife with the practice Midwifery Care of Holyoke, holds newborn baby Rosa Sullivan-Merrick in 2006. Rosa's mother, Michelle Sullivan, drove as far as Wendell to give birth at Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center, which the hospital intends to close this fall. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Tara Brock Winters watches as her husband, Chris, cuts her newborn son Shane's umbilical cord in 2005. Brock Winters drove all the way from Worthington to give birth to her son at Holyoke Medical Center's Birthing Center, which the hospital intends to close this fall. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2020 4:12:41 PM

HOLYOKE — For Zoraida Rivera, giving birth could have cost her life. Twice.

Shortly after Rivera’s daughter, Zyannah, was born in 2018, Rivera began having severe headaches — a symptom, she later discovered, of postpartum preeclampsia. The condition occurs when someone has high blood pressure after birth, and it can be deadly.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” Rivera told the Gazette in a phone interview Wednesday. After a day of headaches, she woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling of impending doom. “I told my husband, ‘I think I’m going to die.’”

Rivera, who lives in Holyoke, was rushed to the hospital and treated for her condition. When she delivered her son, Noel, a year later, she again developed preeclampsia. But she already knew she was in good hands, and she doesn’t hesitate to give credit to those she said saved her life: the physicians, midwives, nurses and other staff at Holyoke Medical Center’s Birthing Center.

“Not only did the nurses and all of them treat me like such family, they never left my side,” Rivera said. If Holyoke Medical Center hadn’t been so close by, she said, things could have turned out differently. “I don’t think I would have made it.”

Rivera is one of many women looking back fondly on their deliveries at Holyoke Medical Center’s Birthing Center, which the hospital recently announced it intends to close this fall. Many are expressing shock at the closure — which will leave Holyoke residents with no place to get obstetric care within the city — and at the allegations of former employees who told the Gazette that administrators bullied them and forced them out, risking patient care in the process.

In an email to staff, Holyoke Medical Center President and CEO Spiros Hatiras said that the hospital's maternity service unit loses $3-$4 million annually and that the organization cannot sustain those losses any longer. He said that the hospital has been unable to increase its number of deliveries, citing the medical center’s lack of a neonatal intensive care unit as a reason parents choose to give birth elsewhere. 

However, five former employees told the Gazette that the number of deliveries dropped after many employees left. They allege hospital administrators created a hostile work environment, jeopardizing patient care and forcing out longtime employees. Those concerns were echoed in a Gazette guest column written by Vanessa Ross, a former nurse midwife at the hospital, and signed by 27 former midwives, nurses, staff and physicians.

A spokesperson for Holyoke Medical Center did not respond to an interview request for this article and declined to make Hatiras as well as Marc Zerbe, head of women's services, available for interviews.   

Holyoke has a history of high infant mortality rates, especially for women of color. City officials and health care providers have expressed concern about the fact that many Holyoke residents don’t have adequate transportation to make it to prenatal and postpartum visits in Springfield or Northampton, the nearest places to deliver.

“This is going to be a really big problem for people with limited resources,” said Aixa Melendez, who 15 years ago gave birth to her son Adrian at the Birthing Center. “If you don’t have transportation, you cannot get to the nearest place. And if you have little to no income, that’s another aspect.”

Melendez said that she is an anxious person, and hospital settings make her extremely nervous. So when it came time to give birth to her son, she knew she wanted a midwife by her side. As someone who is “doubtful” of the health care system, she said midwives have a patient-centered, calming vibe that some doctors don’t have.

“I was so afraid,” Melendez said. “I thought I was going to die giving birth, but because of them, I was able to do it. I was able to mentally calm down and all of that.”

Melendez and other former patients spoke with deep appreciation of the nurse-midwife practice at Holyoke Medical Center, Midwifery Care of Holyoke — a practice formed in 1985 as the direct result of a state task force looking to lower the city’s infant mortality rate, which at the time was the highest in Massachusetts, with women of color suffering disproportionately.

Though the midwives practiced at two other hospitals before arriving 20 years ago at Holyoke Hospital — now Holyoke Medical Center on Beech Street — they always kept an office in the city.

Samantha Figueroa of Holyoke said she had a great experience when she gave birth to her two girls at the Birthing Center in 2015 and 2017. She said she felt more comfortable giving birth at a hospital in her own community, and that if she has a third child she won’t want to go to another hospital. She said she wonders where Holyoke women are going to deliver and receive obstetrical care if the Birthing Center closes.

“Now a lot of women are going to have to look for other care elsewhere, and there are not a lot of options in this area,” she said. “It’s really hard on the community.”

‘Respectful of women’s wishes’

Currently, Holyoke Medical Center maternity patients are receiving care at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield after the hospital temporarily closed its Birthing Center in April to convert it to house patients from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home as that facility dealt with a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19. Other local options for maternity care include Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

It wasn’t just women from Holyoke that were drawn to the midwives. Tina Krutsky, the founding midwife at the practice who ultimately left Midwifery Care of Holyoke in 2009, said that shortly after the practice was formed, women from across the region began to make the journey to see the midwives.

“We very quickly gained a reputation in the Valley as a midwifery practice that was respectful of women’s wishes during their labor and their birth, and we got to be pretty popular pretty quickly,” Krutsky said.

When Michelle Sullivan gave birth to her daughter Rosa 14 years ago, she lived in Wendell. She drove all the way to and from Holyoke — an hour journey on some days — because of the midwives’ excellent reputation.

On the day she went into labor, Sullivan was worried that she would make the trek to Holyoke only to be sent home if she wasn’t in active labor. But the midwives let her stay in a triage room for hours before she was admitted. She eventually had a water birth, which was her plan. She credits the midwives with listening to her desires and making her birth plan a reality.

“I think birth and death are the flip sides of a coin. They make time stop, they make everything that is not important fade away in the world,” she said. “They’re very sacred moments … Having that be how my kid started her relationship with me and her dad is amazing.”

Tara Brock Winters drove all the way from Worthington to give birth to her son, Shane, with the Holyoke midwives in 2005. She said she was looking for a low-intervention approach but that her labor was difficult. Eventually, though, midwife Nina Kleinberg helped her deliver her son vaginally.

“I do believe in another setting I would have had a C-section, but this was avoided with the care of Nina,” she said, also praising the Birthing Center nurses for their encouragement. Brock Winters said she delivered her daughter, Lucia, with the midwives three years later and again avoided a C-section.

Taylor Figueroa of Russell, who gave birth to her son, Calvin, in 2016, had a similar experience. She said she felt that the midwives really listened to her and that the Birthing Center staff provided excellent care. The proposed closure of the Birthing Center and the mass exodus of its staff amid allegations of bullying came as troubling news, she said.

“I felt so sad for the community,” she said. “The Birthing Center is a gem between the midwives, nurses and all of the staff. It was just amazing.”

Holyoke Medical Center must now go through the state Department of Public Health’s process for essential service closures before it can shutter the Birthing Center, which it intends to do by Oct. 1. That process will include a public hearing.

Zoraida Rivera, who credits the Birthing Center with saving her life after developing postpartum preeclampsia, said she plans to take part in that hearing. So does her husband, Dollvy, who said he suggested they start a petition when they heard about the impending closure.

“We know a lot of people who gave birth there,” he said. “I had a great experience.”

Rivera said she can’t help but notice that the Birthing Center is closing in Holyoke, where more than half the city identifies as Hispanic or Latino. She said she questions whether something similar would happen in other nearby communities.

“If it was more with white people, I think they would have been able to save that over a city that has a lot of minorities,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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