Saturday, January 26, 2008

On Shutting Down St. Luke's NICU

It is appalling that profit continues to drive our health care system. Sutter Health’s decision to close St Luke’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is not one to strengthen access for San Francisco residents. The closure will simply force families who live in the more outlying neighborhoods of the Bayview, Excelsior and OMI to seek newborn intensive care across town or outside of San Francisco. The reality is people do not always have easy choices for where to find lifesaving care. Lifesaving care is either there or not there, close or far away. And if it’s not there or far away the outcomes can be disastrous.

Take my family’s story: In 2001, while on the road to Los Angeles, something went terribly wrong with my wife’s pregnancy. Minutes after getting off the freeway and finding an emergency room she was whisked off to labor and delivery where two days later our daughter Rene was born.

Rene was four months premature and weighed 1 lb 3oz. Her skin had the appearance of cellophane and broke apart at the touch. After 6 days she had a heart operation. And for the first two months of her NICU stay she lay prone in an incubator with a
breathing tube down her throat, struggling to stay alive. She was so fragile that transferring her here to San Francisco was out of the question.

Rene survived the ordeal. She had a strong spirit, but even with that she could never have survived without the round the clock care of talented NICU doctors and nurses. Because we were so fortunate to have a NICU blocks away from the exit we took off of Highway 101, our daughter has been able enjoy her first six years like most other children her age.

Infant deaths and the complications of traumatic birth are unthinkable for expecting parents. At the hospital we witnessed other babies who despite capable and compassionate NICU care, die or who left the hospital with lifelong disabilities. We know two families who have lost babies at childbirth.

Because emergency births are all too common, parents feel infinitely more secure knowing that reliable hospital services are minutes away. But once the time is doubled, successful outcomes become much more unattainable. That is why deliveries at St Luke’s without the safety net of NICU will come with great risk.

No child should suffer for lack of access to newborn intensive care services. Sutter must rethink its plan to close vital services at St. Luke’s Hospital. San Franciscans throughout the city need close access to full service hospitals, but this is especially true in Districts 10 and 11 where most of the major hospitals are far across town.