BLUE HILL, Maine — With veils swirling, finger cymbals clanging, feet spinning and hips undulating, belly dancers from Hancock County and beyond whirled their way around the stage at the elementary school Saturday to raise funds to save the obstetrics department at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.
The “Bellies for Bellies” fundraiser was held as part of a larger effort to raise the $600,000 needed to save the OB unit for another year. The hospital, faced with severe cash-flow problems and on the brink of bankruptcy, has targeted the department for closure as part of its plan to cut operating costs.
The hospital board voted in February to close the department, which likely will not happen until the end of May. Administrators have given the staff until March 10 to raise the funds.
Dr. Meredith Norris, a family practitioner who delivers babies at BHMH, and Henrietta Clews, a nurse midwife in the OB department, headed a group of doctors, nurses and community members to put together the fundraiser in just two weeks.
“I’m a dancer; I have a lot of friends that are dancers,” Norris said. “I called them. I’m impressed that there are so many who showed up.”
The dancers were joined by local musicians and magicians at Saturday’s event, which also included a silent auction of items donated by local residents and businesses.
The community event was part of a wider campaign, and the organizers are under no illusions that belly dancing will be enough to save the OB department.
“We’re not going to raise $600,000 doing this,” said Norris, who also danced Saturday. “We need to reach a broader audience,” she said.
Bellies for Bellies raised a total of about $12,000 — $6,000 in donations and about $6,000 from the silent auction.
According to Clews, the overall campaign has raised about $154,000 so far, mainly on the strength of three large donations and the Bellies for Bellies event. To reach the goal, she said, they will have to rely on many more such donations.
The Blue Hill Consolidated School was full of supporters, including generations of people who have had children born at the hospital or were born there themselves, as well as a large number of new parents carrying the newest additions to their families.
The closing of the OB unit would be a “terrible” loss, said Elizabeth Young of Blue Hill, who attended the fundraiser with her 10-week-old daughter, Emily. She said her experience at BHMH had been “fantastic.”
“It really is as close as you can get to a delivery at home with all the benefits of the hospital,” she said.
“We have to save this department,” said Michele Levesque of Sedgwick, who attended the fundraiser with her 6-week-old son, Jasper, and her husband, Michael Rossney. “Knowing that I could not deliver at home, this was the perfect substitute.”
Rossney said that, coming from a large, urban area in California, finding a small hospital that provided personalized options for delivery was “so special.”
“Everything was dictated by the mother and father,” he said. “Everything is focused on having a baby and making it as easy as possible.”
OB units never make money for hospitals, according to Clews, and all hospitals have to carry the OB unit as a loss leader. In good times, the hospital has been able to support that service, Clews said. But the BHMH’s financial predicament is very real, and the funds are no longer there to provide that support.
“We’re honest-to-God up against the wall,” she said. “If we can raise the money for one year, that might give the hospital time to get their financial house in order, which they are doing.”
The decision to eliminate the OB unit was part of an ongoing, hospitalwide analysis of operations in an effort to develop a break-even budget for the hospital for the next fiscal year, which begins April 1, according to Scott Oxley, the interim chief financial officer at BHMH.
Earlier this year, the hospital cut 34 positions throughout the hospital and laid off 15 employees, about 5 percent of the hospital’s work force of 347 people. The current budget analysis is looking at growth opportunities as well as expense reduction, Oxley said.
“Everything is being reviewed,” he said. “We hate to let it go. But the losses are significant compared to other services that impact a lot more people. This will get us close, but it’s not enough.”
Closing the OB department will result in the loss of the equivalent of 6½ positions, and will mean that seven people will lose their jobs, according to Anne Louise D’Entremont, the hospital’s vice president of clinical services and the chief of nursing services. But, she said, given the hospital’s financial condition, the large oper-ating losses and the declining number of women of child-bearing age in the area, the decision had to be made.
“It’s a big change, and it’s really hard to fathom, but unfortunately, we’re backed up against the wall at this point,” she said. “It breaks my heart. It’s gut-wrenching to think about eliminating a program that is so wonderful.”
Meanwhile, the grass-roots effort will continue to raise funds until the March 10 deadline. Checks can be made out to OB-Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and sent to Clews at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, PO Box 1653, Blue Hill 04614.