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Sharon Hospital under fire but we need to listen

It’s an emotional and very personal topic: the proposed closing of the maternity unit at Sharon Hospital. From when the first release of the information about it leaked before the planned announcement July 3, it has been a difficult situation where the administrators at the hospital are trying to catch up to public perception, and too much of that public perception is based on discussion with others in the community who have not kept up with the real information. If that sounds circular, that’s because it is.

To his credit, Sharon Hospital President Peter Cordeau was at the Sharon selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, July 24, to answer questions (see the story by Leila Hawken in this issue) and try to have information out there for all to hear. He was there on his own, with time to offer an opening statement, and then to be questioned by all in the group, including the selectmen and members of the public, who overflowed into the hallway at the Sharon Town Hall outside the selectmen’s meeting room. 

Cordeau was patient and knowledgeable, offering the same representation of the facts behind the reasoning of the proposed birthing suite closure as he has from the beginning of this ongoing controversy. He did his best to answer every question, from those who were concerned about women’s health care in general, to those specifically upset about local access to a maternity unit (like one mother-to-be who was due in nine weeks from that date) to those who believed this step might just be the first leading to other closures. 

The fears are legitimate and defensible. After all, across the country, rural hospitals are at risk and many have closed not just their birthing centers, but their doors. The reason for creating the health care network, including Sharon Hospital, that exists in the Northwest Corner and the Tri-state region was to make it more likely there would be better outcomes for sick or injured, or pregnant, people here, where the alternative hospitals are so much farther away. The closure of Sharon Hospital would be devastating to the communities surrounding it, making access to health care much less timely or even unlikely. But that is not what Cordeau is talking about.

We would like to see the hospital’s maternity unit remain available to young families in this area. The alternative of longer trips to have their children far from where they live is a hard one to accept. But we won’t demonize Cordeau in the process of understanding why this closure was proposed. Mother and child safety is critically important, as he has said again and again, emphasizing that the decision to close the unit was not financially based. It has lost significant money in all the years within memory. Cordeau says the decision is rather based on safety and coverage for the department.

The maternity unit is now open at least until the beginning of September, and there are indications there could be sufficient coverage until the end of 2018. But if it is to remain open for the foreseeable future, cooperation among all parties, including those at Sharon Hospital, Health Quest and the Sharon OB/GYN group, will need to be clarified and codified. And the public will need to have its fears assuaged.