Community Expresses Concerns of Obstetrics Unit Closure at Vigil

By Lura Jackson


The extended community of Calais may soon be facing added challenges related to pregnancy, giving birth, and women’s services in general as a result of the expected closure of the Obstetrics unit at Calais Regional Hospital. The hospital announced in May that it is planning to close the branch as of January for financial reasons, prompting assorted responses from the community. One response was a vigil held in Triangle Park on June 2nd, attended by approximately thirty people, many of whom vocalized their concerns.

“I’m not sure Calais can survive this kind of thing,” said Lisa Dereszewski. She described Calais as a city that is attempting to move away from being a disadvantaged rural community into a community that’s growing, and said that the first thing that incoming businesses consider are the schools and the hospitals. “I can’t imagine any CEO wanting to foster a workforce with WCCC when they find out that the hospital is facing closure and the schools are declining.”

For Emma Kneeland, who is retired from the hospital after having worked there for 23 years, her concerns were primarily rooted in the survival of the infants and the mothers. Kneeland said that a few years ago her daughter was pregnant with twins and living 15 minutes outside of town. When she was about to give birth, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital and delivered the twins within an hour. Both babies had issues upon birth. “If they’d been born in an ambulance traveling to Bangor, or in a helicopter, neither one of those babies would have made it,” said Kneeland.

The closure of the OB unit will impact residents well beyond Calais, as Philip Polk of Princeton explained. “We’re in a community that’s pretty much poverty,” said Polk. “Some of these people have a very hard time making arrangements to come to Calais. I can’t imagine them trying to make arrangements to go to Bangor or, if an emergency came up, what are they going to do?” Polk expressed his displeasure with the hospital saying that closing the OB unit was for the community. “If they’re for the community, they’re for everybody. Our families are important to us.” As president of the United Steel Workers at the mill in Baileyville, Polk said that many of the people hired to work in the new tissue department are young people looking to start families. “What are they going to do? Truck their wives to Bangor, take time off from work to get their appointments done?” Polk said that he felt that the hospital – which is a nonprofit corporation – was turning its back on the community by directing funds outside of it to Quorum rather than focusing on keeping its services open. Quorum, a management firm based in Tennessee, was paid $899,000 in 2014 to advise the hospital. “In my eyes, it means Calais is one step closer to shutting down the complete hospital. We can’t afford to keep losing jobs. We can’t afford to keep losing the healthcare that we have from the providers here.”

“It’s a terrible idea. I think we’re going to be delivering babies in the ER,” said Allison, a nurse’s assistant in the emergency room. She explained that the emergency room staff would be receiving additional training in neonatal care, but said that there would not be an on-call team to handle emergency cesareans when needed. “It’s a huge loss. It’s a huge inconvenience to have to travel so far to appointments.” She added that the roads to Machias are in poor condition.

“Being in a car when you’re pregnant is terrible,” shared another woman in the crowd.

The assembled community members were not without suggestions on the steps they could take next or on how Calais Regional Hospital could avoid closing its OB unit. According to two people, including Jim Monaghan, Downeast Regional Hospital was formerly managed by Quorum until it dissolved its relationship and its board. Monaghan’s wife works at the Machias hospital while his daughter works at the Calais one. “There are so many differences between the two. In Machias they had 150 births last year and are finishing in the black for the year.” Another person added that the Machias hospital has focused intently on marketing and taking feedback from the community, something that the vigil attendees clearly felt was lacking from the Calais hospital. 

There is a coalition forming between local community members and organizations to lobby to prevent the closure by providing “creative alternatives” such as Telehealth. It was noted that there are national organizations that are familiar with the problems that are facing rural hospitals and the public was urged to research and communicate such alternatives. Petitions are now being circulated throughout the community to collect signatures to keep the OB unit open.