For pregnant women, a crisis in rural Minnesota

No doubt, giving up the city life and moving to the country roads of Minnesota can seem an idyllic life for a lot of people. And for a lot of people, it is.

For pregnant women, however, living in rural Minnesota comes with significant risks, an article this week on STAT reveals.

There aren’t many hospitals providing urgent services.

In Grand Marais, for example, North Shore Hospital closed its birthing unit in 2015. There wasn’t much of one to begin with, STAT says. It had no operating room for C-sections, for example. For that, women had to go to Duluth.

And because so many did, the health care providers say they had difficulty keeping up their skills. Malpractice insurers didn’t want to take on the risk. So now, STAT says, pregnant women do. They either give birth at home or face “harrowing” (according to STAT) rides down dirt roads to Highway 61 to Duluth.

The planned closure prompted an outcry in the community, which is situated along Lake Superior and at the edge of a vast federal wilderness area. Grand Marais, a former logging and fishing hub, is the seat of Cook County and its only municipality. Its economy is driven by tourists and seasonal visitors who flock to the artsy town for its breathtaking scenery and recreation. The people who live here year-round take a certain pride in living independently. Many built their own homes, started their own businesses, and take care of their own problems.

The hospital serves a vast area, including several unincorporated territories whose residents live on dirt roads more than three hours from Duluth.

Some worried the closure of the labor and delivery services would disproportionately harm low-income families without the means to spend several nights in the city and take extra time off work. More women might decide to give birth at home, despite the inherent dangers. And it would certainly force more women in labor to make the long drive to Duluth. In cases where they couldn’t make it, they would still have to rely on local doctors, whose skills would be diminished from handling fewer and fewer births.

Sixteen percent of rural counties in Minnesota have lost access to local obstetric services in the last decade.

Nationwide, according to the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center, 200 hospitals closed birthing units between 2004 and 2014.

A 2011 study said infant mortality rates triple for women who have to travel for several hours to reach a hospital.

“It’s the biggest thing on people’s minds,” Kristin DeArruda-Wharton, a nurse who holds birthing classes at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, tells STAT. “People literally say to me, ‘I’m not even worried about the birth. I just want to get to Duluth.’”

(h/t: Paul Tosto)