Gallup hospital’s birthing unit to reopen, but former nurse says fix is just a Band-Aid

Delivery rooms shut down in late September as employees resigned, objecting to poor working conditions and a culture of fear

By: - October 18, 2021 6:15 am

Sara Pikaart resigned in December from Rehoboth-McKinley Christian Hospital after decade as a labor and delivery nurse. She and other employees say a hostile work environment there forced out employees like her. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Administrators of a Gallup hospital announced Thursday afternoon that the hospital would reopen its labor and delivery unit a month after it closed, sending soon-to-be parents scrambling to find a new place to give birth.

The unit at Rehoboth-McKinley Christian Hospital will reopen at 7 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 24, according to an all-staff email obtained by Source New Mexico. The postpartum unit in the hospital will reopen later, following renovations. 

“We recognize this was a difficult time for our patients, staff, providers and our community during the temporary closure,” wrote Curry C. Graham, Jr., the interim chief nursing officer.

The hospital announced the unit’s closure Sept. 24, citing staffing shortages. Staff in the unit deliver between 30 and 40 babies a month.

The unit closed amid a statewide nursing shortage and a spate of resignations by nurses and obstetrician-gynecologists due to what they described as poor working conditions. 

A group of physicians voted to form a union Oct. 3 to demand changes at the hospital, including a new local CEO, working equipment, an end to out-of-state management contracts and more transparency from the Board of Trustees, whose meetings are held in secret. 

It’s the first such physicians union in New Mexico. Members are still working on a collective-bargaining agreement with the administration.

It was the latest chapter in longstanding tensions between administration and staff at the hospital, which was once hailed for staff heroism during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic on the Navajo Nation.

Sara Pikaart was a nurse at the hospital for a decade but quit in December, citing a hostile work environment and lack of support from administration. She now works at a hospital in Ft. Defiance, Ariz., which has seen an increase in pregnant patients since the Rehoboth-McKinley Christian Hospital closure. 

She questioned whether the administration in Gallup has a long-term solution to fully staff the unit. The hospital recently advertised for traveling nurses to help cover shifts, paying them $3,230 a week with a start date of Nov. 1. 

Traveling nurses typically have 13-week rotations, so it’s not clear what happens three months from now, Pikaart said. 

The biggest staffing hurdle might be finding OB-GYNs, Pikaart said. A year ago, four OB-GYNs worked in the unit. By December, there will be none. 

Dr. Hannah Palm, an OB-GYN at the Gallup hospital, spoke at the Oct. 2 town hall of the trauma of being unable to provide adequate care to patients. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

RELATED: Labor pains: Delivery rooms closed at Gallup hospital as employees resign (Oct. 4, 2021)

“You need OB-GYNs, too. They don’t just grow on trees,” she said. “A Band-Aid is a very good way of putting it. It’s a short-term solution. It’s better than nothing.”

Dr. Hannah Palm, an OB-GYN who announced her resignation in mid-September and will leave in December, said she is cautiously optimistic about the unit’s long-term future. The administration has hired a pretty even mix of permanent and temporary nurses, she said.

But they still haven’t found OB-GYNs to replace the four who left, she said. It’s not clear what will happen if they don’t find them.

“I know that they’re actively looking for more OB-GYNs, but as of right now we don’t have any hired that will start once we leave,” Palm said. 

Whatever solution will be much more expensive than if the hospital had managed to retain its staff of nurses and doctors, Palm said. She wishes administration had done more to keep long-time staff, who cost less than temporary hires and also had a close-knit relationship with patients.

“I wish that there was more effort in keeping the permanent people that they had,” she said. “But it just doesn’t really feel like they made a concerted effort to do that.”

Don Smithburg, the hospital’s interim CEO, did not respond to a request for comment on how the hospital plans to staff the unit. 

A hospital spokesperson, Amanda Maynord, said in a statement that the unit will reopen at the same time as a “much-needed upgrade facility.” She acknowledged that finding staff would be challenging.

“Like many hospitals in rural communities, obstetrics is one of the most difficult specialties to staff,” Maynord said. “As always, (Rehoboth-McKinley Christian Health Care Services) continues its aggressive recruitment and retention efforts to ensure ongoing obstetrics clinical coverage.”     

Rehoboth-McKinley is one of two Gallup hospitals. The other, an Indian Health Service medical center, serves only Native Americans. Rehoboth-McKinley serves many patients from the nearby Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo, as well. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.