ASHLAND — Hospital employees and community members gathered Friday to say goodbye to UH Samaritan Medical Center’s birthing unit that has delivered babies for 112 years. 

Ashland County’s only full-service acute care hospital held an emotion-filled open house from noon to 3 p.m. on the fourth floor, where a staff of 21 have been forced to find work elsewhere.

UH Samaritan announced in July it would close its labor and delivery department on Aug. 8. By Friday, various medical supplies packed in boxes could be seen in the halls of the bright birthing unit. 

The hospital stopped accepting new patients Aug. 5. 

Samaritan will continue to provide women’s care, including children’s health services, OB/GYN physician and midwife care, GYN surgical services, and breastfeeding and lactation services.

But expectant mothers will now have to deliver at Mercy Health Regional Medical Center in Lorain County, OhioHealth Mansfield, Avita Ontario Hospital or Wooster Community Hospital.

Samaritan’s labor and deliver department marks the third in the UH system that has closed in recent years. According to the Ohio Hospital Association, there have been 28 closures or consolidations of labor and delivery units in the last 12 years. Eleven of those have happened in the last year. 

A ‘perfect storm’

A staff shortage, rising costs and falling birth rates caused a “perfect storm” at UH Samaritan, said Sylvia Radziszewski, UH Samaritan’s chief operating officer.

She said rural hospitals struggle to find obstetricians to cover smaller communities, when it means being on call 24/7. In larger hospitals, like OhioHealth in Mansfeld, there are obstetricians, pediatricians and anesthesiologists working around the clock, giving them better work-life balances.

“In order to safely deliver babies, you need all three,” Radziszewski said.

Rising costs to run hospitals doesn’t help the situation. According to Bureau of Labor and Statistics data, hospital prices have grown an average 2.1% per year over the last decade.

Hospital labor costs between 2019 and 2022 spiked 20.8%, an increase driven by a 258% rise in contract labor expenses, an American Hospital Association study from April stated.

Samaritan has seen a steady decline in deliveries year over year since 2018. That year, the hospital delivered 303 babies. In 2023, that number was projected to be 182.

Nationally, birth rates have declined since 1990. A U.S. Census Bureau analysis of National Center for Health Statistics data showed there were about 70.77 births per year for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. By 2019, that number fell to 58.21.

What happens to the staff?

A total of 21 people lost their jobs with the move. 

Lisa Bushong, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, said 19 of them have already found positions either within the UH system or in other medical networks. The other two have offers but have yet to decide, she said. 

“We’re very proud of the quality of care that we’ve been able to deliver to the community,” she said, emphasizing the level of expertise represented in the staff. She said the hospital received a Baby Friendly designation from the global Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.

Heather Kline, one of the registered nurses on the unit, said she felt a range of emotions on Friday. Soon, she’ll start a night-shift nursing position at OhioHealth in Mansfield.

“What if they don’t like me?” she said. “I feel like a kid starting at a new school.” 

Kline, of Nova, has worked at UH Samaritan for 17 years. She started in the hospital’s registration department, registering patients. She worked there for a couple years before becoming a secretary in the hospital’s birthing unit. 

“I watched those girls come together in an emergency to save a baby,” she said, reminiscing on the time she was a secretary. “All the while, the mom has no idea that anything traumatic was happening. And these girls had this confidence, this grace. Mom just thought it was normal and didn’t have to worry because these nurses knew what they were doing.”

She said she decided in that moment she would work to become a registered nurse.

In 2018, the full-time working mom earned her license to be a registered nurse. She said she will miss the camaraderie she experienced with the other nurses.

“My husband promised we could put in a pool so we could have an annual pool party with all of them,” she said.

What happens to the 4th floor?

The birthing unit, located on the hospital’s fourth floor, was renovated in 2011. 

Expectant moms were treated with a small café and an atrium that offers natural sunlight. The unit offered a couple triage rooms, an operating room suite, five suites devoted to labor, delivery and postpartum care (LDRP) and six general rooms.

“We call this one the Hilton bathroom,” said Bushong, opening the door to a bathroom of one of the LDRP suites. “You judge the quality of a hotel by its bathrooms. These are nice.” 

The unit was licensed for 13 bassinets and 12 moms, Bushong said. 

Plans for the fourth floor remain uncertain. Radziszewski said she and leadership are allowing for “time to grieve and time to process.” 

“This is a significant service to eliminate for the hospital,” she said.

That being said, however, Radziszewski pointed to Ashland County’s aging population and the national trend of creating smaller families.

She said other services the hospital provides are thriving. Namely, cardiovascular services. 

“Cardiovascular services are booming. Which is fortunate and unfortunate at the same time, as you can imagine. We’re going to level-up our cardio cath-lab to be providing services 24/7. Our cardio pulmonary rehab services are busting at the seam,” she said. 

Radziszewski said the hospital is “locked in” in terms of real estate options.

“So we’re being very thoughtful and intentional of the services we put up here. So it will take a little time to come to that decision,” she said.

Lead reporter for Ashland Source who happens to own more bikes than pairs of jeans. His coverage focuses on city and county government, and everything in between. He lives in Mansfield with his wife and...