Next year will mark a quarter-century since my premature birth in Congress Heights. My mother, Florine, as with so many expecting mothers who lived east of the Anacostia River in the 1990s, traveled the short distance to Greater Southeast Community Hospital, now known as United Medical Center. The troubled — and only — D.C. hospital east of the river serves the city’s most impoverished communities. After a potentially dangerous prognosis for my mother’s already high-risk pregnancy at age 36, she was immediately admitted, and labor was induced.
My surprise arrival would prove even more complicated. I’d spend a week in an incubator, under the constant watch of dedicated doctors and nurses who were concerned about a heart murmur and jaundice. I had to be coached to eat on my own, and my postpartum mother traveled back and forth daily to monitor my progress and pray for my health.
Many mothers share similar stories and are grateful for happy endings possible only through access to a local obstetrics unit — in my mother’s case, a six-minute drive from our home.
Recently, the UMC board, appointed by the mayor, voted in secret to permanently close the obstetrics unit at UMC, leaving thousands of expecting mothers and unborn babies in the city’s poorest corners without immediate access to health care. This move is irresponsible and possibly immoral. By closing the obstetrics unit, the UMC board has decided to play a game of Russian roulette with expecting mothers east of the river. This is unacceptable.
By eliminating the only obstetrics unit east of the river, our leaders have forced us to ask whether our city believes mothers and unborn babies in these neighborhoods are worth less than those who reside in wealthier neighborhoods in the District.
Save the Children’s 16th annual State of the World’s Mothers report on 25 high-income capital cities around the world found that Washington had the highest infant mortality rate. The report states that “Babies in Ward 8, where over half of all children live in poverty, are about 10 times as likely as babies born in Ward 3, the richest part of the city, to die before their first birthday.”
Knowing this, why would anyone think it would be a good idea to close the only obstetrics unit serving our city’s poorest residents in Wards 7 and 8?
The UMC obstetrics unit wasn’t perfect and made incredible mistakes. However, closing it wasn’t an answer. The District is rich in resources. Not only are we home to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, but also we are home to some of the best medical schools, research facilities and experts. If the board truly cared about the families east of the river, it would have done everything in its power to fix the problem instead of just shutting the doors.
The closure vote and the silence from many D.C. officials make it clear that when it comes to the care of babies and mothers east of the river, our leaders have waved the white flag of surrender. And while the hardworking families east of the Anacostia River wait for the far-off promise of a new hospital on the St. Elizabeths East site, expecting mothers will have to travel miles — crossing a river, traversing interstate highways, through tunnels and traffic on a couple of major roadways — to find a hospital to have their babies. I can’t bear to imagine what such a wait time would have meant for my mother. And neither should other working families who deserve quality health care in their communities or unborn Washingtonians who should have a fair shot at life.
Now is the time for action, a time for change for the expecting mothers and unborn babies of Wards 7 and 8.
The writer represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education.