Blue Hill hospital needed in remote areas

Posted Jan. 21, 2009, at 7:39 p.m.

Blue Hill Memorial Hospital has been a leader in providing safe, family-centered childbirth for Hancock County for four decades. Recently administrators have proposed closing the obstetrical unit as financial problems increase. If BHMH no longer serves birthing families, the community will suffer great loss, and the hospital is likely to become a geriatric center.

In the early 1970s, the home birth movement was thriving around Blue Hill. While many babies were born safely at home, when a problem arose the small hospital was not equipped to deal with complications and sent distressed, laboring women to Ellsworth or Bangor by ambulance. If the woman had chosen to deliver at BHMH, doctors said, the problem could have been diagnosed sooner or even prevented.

BHMH invited fathers or other family members of a woman’s choosing into delivery rooms sooner than larger hospitals in the county.

In 1971 I moved to Brooksville from Bangor and learned that BHMH was interested in offering classes in the Lamaze method or other preparation for childbirth. Family physicians Bradley Brownlow and Jerry Murray provided obstetrical care along with the nursing staff.

One nurse told me that most childbirth at Blue Hill was “natural” because they gave so little medication to women in labor. The nurses and doctors worked closely with me to organize and offer prepared childbirth classes starting in 1972. Professionals and patients alike were pleased with the results. A number of enthusiastic mothers formed an association to train and support volunteer educators.

Women called me with questions about birth alternatives: Midwife or physician? Home or hospital? Blue Hill or somewhere else? With BHMH doctors offering great flexibility from birthing positions to length of stay, many women decided to give birth at the hospital and go home within hours. Word spread, and people came to childbirth classes from as far away as Washington County.

My second child was born at BHMH in 1974 and never left my side; we went home 24 hours later. Soon after that, a board-certified obstetrician and a nurse-midwife joined the staff. Dr. Robert Walker and midwife Retta Clews have continued their affiliation for decades.

Over the years, BHMH built on its reputation as a friendly place to give birth, and many family physicians have come to help care for birthing families and their children. Well-woman care has increased apace.

Perhaps the institution spent more money than necessary to enlarge and renovate birthing and delivery rooms. The birthing room has home-like decor, space for fathers and additional family members, and a bed that converts to help a midwife or doctor assist a woman in delivering her child.

The late Dr. Brownlow insisted that he did not deliver babies. “Mothers deliver babies,” he said. “I just catch them.”

By doing so, he and other caregivers since, have provided the open door that invites whole families to seek care at BHMH and its affiliated community health centers. Current acting administrator Dr. Erik Steele lamented the low number of babies born at the hospital over the past year. But 120 babies translate into more than 500 family members as potential patients. If they like their care, they invite new neighbors to turn to BHMH as well.

People are having fewer babies, which is good for the planet and essential for family economic health. No doubt more people are giving birth at Ellsworth’s Maine Coast Memorial Hospital since it took the challenge from Blue Hill and became family friendly.

With Eastern Maine Medical Center taking over BHMH, administrators may think their Bangor hospital will benefit from closing Blue Hill’s obstetrical service. But for people who live in places such as Stonington, Brooksville and Castine, the driving distance to hospitals in Bangor or Ellsworth poses unreasonable risk and cost.

Stonington to Blue Hill is 21 miles, 34 miles to Ellsworth, 52 miles to Bangor. These are not quick miles but extend over winding, pot-holed, winter icy, summer tourist-clogged country roads. From Brooksville, the trip is eight miles to Blue Hill, 35 miles to Ellsworth, 37 miles to Bangor, further from Cape Rosier.

Blue Hill Memorial Hospital has an obligation to serve our remote communities and to uphold its decades-old tradition of excellence in family-centered childbirth.

Sharon Bray of Orland is a poet, journalist and semiretired community health educator.

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