How Pregnant Women in Low-Income and Communities of Color Were Affected After a Rural Hospital Closed Its Obstetrics Unit

Shantell Jones and her son Michel Le Barron Jones. / Courtesy Shantell Jones

Shantell Jones gave birth in an ambulance parked on the side of a Connecticut highway. Even though she lived six blocks away from a hospital, the emergency vehicle had to drive to another one about 30 minutes away.

The closer medical center, Windham Hospital, discontinued labor and delivery services last year and is working to permanently cease childbirth services after “years of declining births and recruitment challenges,” its operator, Hartford HealthCare, has said.

But medical and public health experts say the step could potentially put pregnant women at risk if they don’t have immediate access to medical attention. Losing obstetrics services, they said, could be associated with increased preterm births, emergency room births and out-of-hospital births without resources nearby, like Jones’ childbirth experience.

The dilemma Jones faced is one that thousands of other pregnant women living in rural communities without obstetrics units nearby are encountering as hospitals cut back or close services to reduce costs. Nationwide, 53 rural counties lost obstetrics care from 2014 through 2018, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which also found that out of 1,976 rural counties in the country, 1,045 never had hospitals with obstetrics services to begin with.

The problem is particularly acute in communities of color, like Windham in northeastern Connecticut, where the population is 41 percent Latino, while the statewide Latino population is only 16.9 percent, according to the U.S Census Bureau. The community is 6.2 percent Black. Local activists say they fear low-income residents will bear the brunt of the hospital’s decision because Windham has a 24.6 percent poverty rate compared to 10 percent statewide, according to the census.

The night Jones delivered her son, her mother, Michelle Jones, had called 911 because Jones was going into labor a few weeks early, and after her water broke they knew the baby was coming soon. Both expected the ambulance to drive the short distance to Windham Hospital, where Jones received her prenatal care.

But the ambulance attendant was told Windham wasn’t taking labor and delivery patients and was referring people to Backus Hospital in Norwich, Jones said.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Jean Lee

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