Closing Petaluma hospital’s birthing center could tax its ER

The local emergency room “would be tremendously affected, and in not a good way,” says the ER’s charge nurse.|

Jimmy Huynh has worked as a nurse in the Petaluma Valley Hospital emergency room since 2015, and earned the role of charge nurse – a lead nurse who manages the shifts of other nurses – four years ago.

While he and other ER staff are trained to handle a variety of medical emergencies, Huynh said, one thing they’re not properly trained to do is deliver babies. After all, the hospital’s well-regarded Family Birthing Center has always been there to handle emergency births.

So when emergency room staff learned that Providence – the health care company that bought Petaluma Valley Hospital two years ago – wants to close the birthing center, they reacted with shock, surprise and concern.

The ER, Huynh said, “would be tremendously affected, and in not a good way.”

Huynh said there are usually three nurses on duty at most during his shifts. Should a woman in labor be admitted to the ER, they will probably need their own nurse and their own private bed, putting a strain on staff and on the ER’s capacities.

“Say a mom comes in who is having an emergency delivery and all those rooms are full. She’s going to go to a room that has a shower curtain that divides them from a different room,” Huynh said. “Everybody can see everything, hear everything. And the room is so small already, it’s going to be hard to accommodate a baby, mom, all the equipment that’s needed, all the staff required to give birth.”

By contrast, he said, “OB has their own separate rooms that are very big and can accommodate the dad, the mom, the baby, the nurses, the doctors. We just don’t have that luxury in the ER.”

Providence, which purchased the hospital in 2020 from the Petaluma Health Care District, says staffing issues – particularly with its anesthesiologists – are to blame for the company’s need to close the birthing center. Hospital staff counter that Providence should simply pay more to attract anesthesiologists.

And the Health Care District board is also pushing back, pointing out that per its purchasing agreement, Providence is contractually obligated to keep the OB unit open through 2025.

Last week, during a contentious Feb. 15 board meeting of the Petaluma Health Care District, Providence’s regional chief executive, Laureen Driscoll, insisted that patient safety was the company’s main priority.

“I care very much about the programs and the staff, which is why I’ve asked to engage in a collaborative process,” Driscoll said. “Because by not allowing me to close this program, which I cannot staff safely, will cause interrupted service and care for patients, which I feel is way more threatening to the health and welfare of the community members than having a consistently staffed service. We are in a health care crisis at this moment for staffing, globally.”

But board vice president Elece Hempel stated that “collaboration” would be more appropriate in keeping the birthing center open, not closing it, especially since many in the local health care community were willing to work towards that goal.

“That's collaboration,” Hempel said. “Coming in and saying ‘On this day this system is closing’ is a violation of the contract. If you read the details of the contract, a violation of that contract means that hospital comes back to the district.”

Cheryl Negrin, another board member, was even more pointed, telling Driscoll: “My trust is gone. I can’t trust you at all.”

Driscoll responded with irritation, complaining about being recorded by a reporter and telling board members, “If you want to engage with us in a different way, I’m happy to do that. But this is not the tone and tenor in which I plan to respond.”

Ultimately, the district board rejected Providence’s proposal to close the birthing center, calling instead for more collaboration to keep it open, and appointing an ad hoc committee to explore ways to accomplish that.

Neither Providence nor the district has responded to requests to clarify next steps in the process.

Providence representatives also did not respond to questions on how Petaluma’s emergency room staff would be accommodated if the Family Birthing Center closes.

Maternity desert

If the birthing center in Petaluma were to close, there would be no hospital setting for giving birth anywhere between MarinHealth Medical Center and Providence’s Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital – a more than 40-mile stretch along Highway 101.

According to several medical professionals, the resulting “maternity desert” could especially hurt vulnerable populations with fewer transportation options. That could mean more unplanned trips to Petaluma’s emergency room – or worse, giving birth in a car on the side of the road.

Petaluma resident Karen Tamborski shared a story along those lines from 34 years ago, stating that “I am one of those who would have delivered our son in a VW Rabbit, on the freeway, had it not been for the labor and delivery services provided at Petaluma Valley Hospital.”

In a letter to the Argus-Courier, Tamborski said she went into labor prematurely while working in San Francisco, and got a friend to drive her to Santa Rosa where she intended to give birth.

“My friend arrived in her VW Rabbit and off we went,” she wrote. ”Veering from Lakeville Highway, we got on the freeway, headed to Santa Rosa, only to exit at the next exit, Washington Street, knowing I would never make it to Santa Rosa. We went immediately to Petaluma Valley Hospital and less than 20 minutes later our son was born.“

She added, “I can’t imagine a town the size of Petaluma not being able to secure the appropriate professionals and funding to provide a most significant and pertinent facility for its community.”

Press Democrat reporter Martin Espinoza contributed to this report.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at or 707-521-5208.

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