The first cry and breath of new life holds dear the hope and pride for the newborn and its family. Eighty some years of this miracle has been nurtured at Windham Community Memorial Hospital in Willimantic. Stories of the first birth of the year, of birth announcements, of sibling visits and dinner for the new parents made the birth experience more loving and healthy over the years.
In the summer of 2020 in the throes of the COVID pandemic, Hartford Healthcare announced the permanent closing of the 80-year-old maternity unit. They said that the dwindling numbers meant “women were choosing to go elsewhere.” They failed to disclose their corporate moves to close the intensive care unit, and the loss of OB GYNs due to that. During the pandemic, they held a Zoom meeting to tell the community of the future of childbirth at Windham Hospital. There was none but transfers to other preferred sites. They have a certificate of need, at the Office of Healthcare Strategy, in Hartford after closing the unit and in the midst of the pandemic.
Roll the timeframe back to 2010 when the childbirths at Windham Community Memorial Hospital and Backus Hospitals were both around 400 a year. Hartford Hospital had announced itself as a healthcare partner for Windham Hospital. The next five years would tell a different story. Behind the scenes, services at Windham Hospital were dramatically changed. They closed the ICU, fired 90 nurses, and reduced the number of inpatient beds. OB-GYNs left due to the risk of working without an ICU. This consolidation and regionalization of services yielded corporate healthcare decisions that doomed the Maternity Unit births in Windham. Before they closed the unit in mid 2020, there were 43 births announced. When the “East Region” annual report came out for 2020, it indicated 67 neonatal birth admissions to Windham Community Memorial Hospital. These additional 24 births were neonatal admissions, but no maternity unit would be there to care for them to provide the community care. Ambulances or the Life Star helicopter would await the transfer to the endowed maternity units in Norwich and Hartford.
A community-based coalition has been rallying to return full maternity services at Windham Community Hospital. We are called “Windham United to Save Our Healthcare.”
Both the Windham Town Council in October 2020 and Mansfield Town Council in April 2021 voted overwhelmingly to endorse this request to restore the maternity unit of Windham Memorial Hospital.
We are at risk to become a healthcare desert. Rural roads link Willimantic to these preferred sites in Norwich and Hartford. Route 32 and 6 West are winding two-laned, and a hardship for families who are poor, non-English speaking, people of color, of in medical risk groups. For women with Caesarian histories, breech births, umbilical cords around the neck, low weight and large sized babies, mental health issues, diabetes and hypertension, taking away our local birthing unit can mean the difference between a safe or tragic outcome. Winter conditions make those trips to other wards life threatening.
Hartford Hospital and Healthcare published their 2020 East Region report with its new birthing unit at Backus with individualized care for mother and child in their over 800 births a year. They stress the risks of women of color and poverty in their Department of Maternal Health in Hartford. They declare that taking away a local and accessible maternity unit at Windham Hospital has made a better, highly skilled unit like that at Backus or Hartford Hospital a safer and more caring option. Hartford proudly speaks of its “consolidation and regionalization” of essential services as the answer. Our community refutes that claim. Corporate image and planning have been the goal. Community voices in Windham area are resounding: Reopen our maternity unit now.
Over 80 years of safe and culturally sensitive childbirth at Windham Community Memorial Hospital are not for sale. Our pregnant and birthing mothers deserve what the women of Norwich and Hartford have, a local and full serviced maternity unit to nurture those first cries and breaths of each newborn and welcome into the arms of the mothers, fathers and families. It is a matter of life, health, safety, racial and economic justice. Reopen the maternity unit in Windham now.
Brenda Buchbinder, a licensed social worker, lives in Willimantic.