LEOMINSTER — Healthcare workers, residents, and elected officials rallied Tuesday at UMass Memorial Health’s Leominster campus to protest the planned closure of its maternity ward, which they say will endanger the lives of mothers and infants across North Central Massachusetts.
The crowd of more than 100 people, including several nurses and pediatricians, gathered on the hospital’s lawn to condemn the closure they say will place a greater burden on emergency services and leave an already vulnerable population without accessible maternal care.
“We’re here because what’s unacceptable to this community is young women giving birth on the side of the road on the way to Worcester,” said state Senator John Cronin, a Lunenburg Democrat, who organized the rally.
Cronin and fellow protesters said the hospital’s decision to close the unit is a clear example of “profits over patients” and condemned what they called an “abandonment” of communities that have already dealt with closures of several other essential services over the years. The loss of the unit, they say, could lead to an increase in maternal and infant deaths as women will have to journey further to deliver in inpatient units and place a greater burden on an already stretched emergency service system.
The hospital announced Friday it would close the unit citing “industry-wide workforce shortages” that have made it difficult to train and recruit staff and “steadily declining number of births” in the region, the Globe reported.
UMass Memorial Health declined to offer further statements reacting to the protest.
Steve Roach, the president of UMass Memorial Health Alliance-Clinton Hospital, said in a statement the group submitted a notice to the Department of Public Health that it will close the unit on Sept. 22.
Miko Nakagawa, a registered nurse at the hospital and chair of its Massachusetts Nurse Association chapter, pushed back against the hospital’s reasoning, saying there have not been genuine attempts to fill any of its open positions in the unit, which have continued to receive applications that go unanswered.
She worries about the strain the closure will put on emergency services as more mothers will be left to call ambulances to transport them to either the local emergency room or hospitals in other areas, such as Worcester. The decision, she said, coupled with past closure of the hospital’s pediatric unit, will create a health care desert for mothers and babies in the region.
“The area’s 911 services are already strained, they won’t be able to care for everybody,” she said. “If they’re busy with a laboring mother that has to go to Worcester, they won’t have time for the heart attack or car accident.”
Residents of Worcester County already face poorer birthing outcomes than most counties in the state. According to a 2023 national survey, the county currently has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the state, a rate that Dr. Thomas Guggina said will likely increase.
A pediatrician who works at UMass Memorial Health’s Worcester and Leominster hospitals, Guggina said the closure will also mean that pediatricians will no longer be staffed to care for babies born in emergency departments.
“That means when babies are born in the parking lot or hospital entrance, which has happened, there won’t be any pediatricians there to help care for them,” he said. “If babies are born prematurely or fall sick, there won’t be pediatricians in the emergency room to consult and arrange care or transportation.”
Guggina also doubts that the hospital’s claim that it cannot fill staff openings was true and condemned the decision as an “abandonment of women and children in the name of profit.”
Cronin, who like many of the protesters was born in the hospital, said the protest is just the beginning of a long fight to preserve the essential services provided by the maternity ward. He urged Dr. Eric Dickson, president of the UMass Memorial Medical Group, to speak with groups to find an alternative solution to the hospital’s financial issues.