Connie Trujillo and Pat Leahan
That’s the question recently posed by community members in Las Vegas, New Mexico, when, on March 1, the only acute medical care facility in the area—Alta Vista Regional Hospital (AVRH)—announced it was closing its obstetrics department on March 7. The private, for-profit hospital, owned by the largest hospital chain in the United States, Community Health Systems of Tennessee, gave only six days’ notice to the OB department’s nursing staff, physicians, nurse-midwives and, most importantly, patients. The memo from AVRH blamed “market conditions” for the “temporary” closure.
This closure meant that women could no longer deliver their babies at the hospital or even in their homes with a midwife. The reaction from the community was immediate shock and anger.
Midwifery has a deeply honored, longstanding history here. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, while the rest of the United States was becoming urbanized and industrialized, this region remained culturally and geographically isolated and unique. The people in the villages of northeastern New Mexico developed their own system of folk medicine that included curandera-parteras, or folk healing midwives.
One of the most famous is Doña Jesusita Aragón. Before her death in 2005, she practiced in Las Vegas and the surrounding area for 80 years and is believed to have delivered more than 20,000 babies, including 27 sets of twins and two sets of triplets. Most of these births took place in her home. Jesusita stopped delivering babies in 2000 when she was 93 years old. So when AVRH made its announcement, it’s no wonder the community began invoking Doña Jesusita’s name as they pondered what to do about this devastating news.
In Las Vegas over the last 10 years, nurse-midwives have attended more than 50 percent of the vaginal births at AVRH. This is considerably higher than the national average of 12 percent and the state average of 30 percent. Women in this part of New Mexico choose to partner with local midwives for one of the most important events in their lives—the prenatal, birthing and post-natal care of themselves and their babies.
Because Alta Vista was the only hospital in the northeast part of the state with the capacity to allow certified nurse-midwives to continue delivering babies, women now have to travel much longer distances, and over a mountain pass, to Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque or Ratón, to deliver their babies. This has already led to tragedy. Just two days after the OB unit closed, a young family from Mora, with the mother in labor, had a tire blow-out at 11:30 p.m. on I-25 near Glorieta as they had to bypass the Las Vegas hospital and head to Santa Fe. They were unharmed and fortunately delivered a healthy baby. But on March 22, 26-year-old Las Vegas mom Desiree Castillo and her unborn son were killed in a weather-related accident on I-25 as the family was returning from a Santa Fe OB appointment. On June 20, Tierney and Paul Taylor barely made it to Santa Fe in time. “The baby was already crowning as we approached the I-25 exit to Santa Fe,” Tierney explained. “We almost didn’t make it. Our baby would have been born on the side of the highway.”
Numerous sectors of the community are coming together to try and prevent such incidents. Some want to try and force Alta Vista to re-open the OB department. Others are hoping a nonprofit hospital or freestanding birthing center will come to town. Women and girls across several counties are doing grassroots organizing. A group called Northeast New Mexico Women’s Health Advocates delivered more than 1,000 signatures to the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners, and on April 12, the commission voted unanimously to form a “Community Hospital and Health Care Study Group” to examine the issue.
Brooklyn Aragón, a 17-year old Las Vegas high-schooler who worked to gather signatures for the petition said, “How can women in labor be expected to drive, in some cases more than two hours, to get to the hospital? Closing the OB unit was about greed. That’s what I think. It makes me sad that profit outweighs the well-being of women and their children.”
On July 7, the New Mexico Legislative Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing in Las Vegas. Chaired by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, the committee heard testimony from hospital CEO Chris Wolf and the New Mexico Hospital Association. They also heard from a mother-to-be and a certified nurse-midwife, as well as concerned women and girls.
The only way to fix the problem that is now affecting more than 7,000 women in the area is to restore these services. Ways to do that include the hospital hiring locum tenens (temporary help for physicians) to help cover the pediatric and obstetric needs, the hospital partnering with another hospital with more resources to help support the re-opening of the unit, or another entity or facility taking on the labor and delivery needs for the women in this community. This facility would need to have the ability to provide surgical services, if needed, and staff to sustain a safe birthing environment.
OB/GYN services must be brought back to Las Vegas as soon as possible. The midwives must be allowed to continue on the path of Jesusita, delivering babies in their own communities. Rather than “market conditions,” the priority must be the well-being of the women and their children in the villages and towns across northeastern New Mexico.
Connie Trujillo is a certified nurse-midwife who works at Alumbra Women’s Health and Maternity Care in Las Vegas, N.M.
Pat Leahan is co-director of the Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center.
A Portrait of Jesusita Aragón
Doña Jesusita Aragón was probably the most beloved healer and midwife in northern New Mexico. While some reports estimate she delivered 12,000 babies, a family spokesperson stated in 2005 that she delivered a total of 45,943 babies during her 80-plus years in midwifery. Just 13 years old during her first delivery, she learned from her Tía Valentina how to deliver babies and use traditional healing herbs. Although she apprenticed with her aunt, she said that she somehow just knew what to do during a birth. For example, when a doctor, trying to be helpful, handed Aragón a stethoscope to listen to an in-utero baby’s heartbeat, she said, “I don’t need that.” Instead, she moved her hands across the woman’s abdomen and instructed the doctor where to place his instrument. The doctor, astounded, had just witnessed her ability to listen to the baby’s pulse with her fingers. She was also able to tell whether a baby was under stress by feeling the pulse through the top of the baby’s head.
Incredibly self-sufficient, Aragon hand-built her own house, chopping down trees and hauling wood on her back. It was in this house that she set up a birthing center with nine or 10 beds, charging from $10 to $125 a birth from the 1930s to the early 2000s. A single mother with two children, Aragón delivered her second child by herself.
Aragón practiced midwifery until she was 93. She died in 2005 at the age of 97.