Speaking to a crowd gathered outside Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham Monday, Dr. Mary Afsari-Howard described how while working as an OB-GYN she’s seen how a baby’s shoulder can get stuck during delivery, quickly causing their oxygen levels to get dangerously low.
Other times, she’s had patients deliver babies so suddenly she barely ran across the hallway in time. Some of those have been followed by dangerous levels of bleeding in the mother that required blood infusions or surgery.
Now, with Legacy Health planning to close the Mount Hood Family Birth Center in Gresham, these are the deadly scenarios that have Afsari-Howard and others worried.
Legacy, which operates six hospitals, has explained that the center’s low volume of births as well as staffing difficulties and high operating costs leave it with no choice but to close it.
“This labor delivery staff is not expendable,” Afsari-Howard, who works part-time at the center, told the crowd. “Our team is not replaceable. This department is not expendable. East county lives matter. East county families matter. One life in danger is too many. One baby in distress is too many. One mother unable to get the help she needs is too many.”
Huddling under umbrellas in the chill of the late afternoon rain, the crowd rallying to pressure Legacy to reverse its move erupted in applause to Afsari-Howard’s remarks.
The rally, which drew roughly 200 people, is the latest in the backlash against Legacy’s plans to close the birth center next month. Hospital staff, elected officials, community members and others hope Legacy will change course, noting the birth center serves a population of about 275,000 people in east Multnomah County and Mount Hood communities, including low-income and non-English-speaking people.
The protesters said its closure will mean expectant mothers will have to drive longer distances to central Portland to deliver their babies and may not get necessary care in time if they have complications.
Amid the whoosh of rush hour traffic and a cacophony of supportive honks, speakers took turns blasting Legacy’s decision to the crowd that packed into a narrow sidewalk outside the hospital where the birth center is located.
Some held signs with slogans written in marker that had become runny from the rain, reading “honk for mamas,” “honk for safe deliveries,” “patients before profits” and “I was born here.”
“This was a decision no one at Legacy wanted to make,” Legacy spokesman Ryan Frank told The Lund Report in an emailed statement. “But it’s the decision we had to make due to the staffing and financial challenges we face.”
According to the statement from Legacy, deliveries will no longer happen at the birth center, but the Gresham-based Medical Center will still offer women’s health services, including obstetrics and gynecology doctors. Legacy will also expand its gynecology services while increasing pregnancy outpatient care at the facility, according to the statement.
A previous statement from Legacy pointed out that pregnant women in the Gresham area can access five birth centers within a 30-minute drive from Mount Hood.
But those at the rally said the birth center’s closure would leave these communities in untenable situations.
“It’s devastating to the community,” Nadia Nation, a nurse who used to work at the birth center and delivered her two children there, told The Lund Report.
She said that while working at the birth center, women in labor would arrive in the parking lot after driving 30 minutes from Mount Hood. Some would give birth in the parking lot, she said.
Jenni Suarez, a Legacy emergency room nurse, told The Lund Report she worries about the impact on patients if the birth center is closed. She said she expects the emergency room staff to have to deliver babies, a task she said they are not trained for.
“I think that there’s gonna be a lot of people that don't know that it’s closed. We serve an impoverished community around here,” she said. "We serve a lot of people that English isn’t their first language and they’re not watching the news every day. And so I think that that is going to end up really terrible for somebody.”
Gresham City Council President Sue Piazza told The Lund Report that she and other elected officials met with Legacy representatives earlier this month. She said she and others appealed to Legacy to find a way to keep the birth center open, but hasn’t heard back since the meeting.
Legacy is planning to close the birth center by March 17, pending approval by the Oregon Health Authority.