The Deprey family of Wallagrass are expecting a baby boy to be delivered via cesarean section in early June. The situation is more complicated now that Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent has announced the closure of its maternity unit. From left are Brandee Deprey, Devyn Deprey and Dylan Deprey. Credit: Courtesy of Brandee Deprey

FORT KENT, Maine — The impending closure of the obstetrics unit at Maine’s northernmost hospital could be disastrous for patients who will have to seek care elsewhere, according to current and former staff members.

Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent announced this week that it will close its obstetrics unit on May 26. The nonprofit hospital cited a decline in maternity patients and a lack of staff to maintain services.

Pregnant patients living in the rural St. John Valley will now need to travel an hour or more south, either to Cary Medical Center in Caribou or Northern Light A.R. Gould in Presque Isle, to deliver their babies. For some, this could result in medical complications and danger to the lives of mothers or babies.

The hospital’s decision mirrors a trend seen in other places in Maine. Last summer, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston shut down its maternity and child care unit, and in March, Rumford Hospital closed its maternity ward. Declining birth rates were cited in both cases.

In 2018, Northern Maine Medical Center listed 30 babies born there in its website’s nursery updates. In 2019, there were 37; in 2020, 46; in 2021, 35; and in 2022, 38.  So far in 2023, seven births have been reported to the St. John Valley Times.

Several physicians currently or formerly on staff at Northern Maine Medical Center spoke to the Bangor Daily News on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from hospital officials. They claim administrators forced the closure of the unit by pressuring physicians to resign and threatening to fire them otherwise.

One doctor described the closure as “a bad situation.”

“The birth rate in the area is still high enough for there to be a handful of obstetric emergencies per year,” the doctor said. “Our geographic location is compounded by extreme winter weather that will mean these emergencies will still happen in our community, and our resources to handle these emergencies have just been cut off. There will be tragedies that would have otherwise been preventable.”

Members of the hospital’s board of trustees did not reply to requests for comment.

Suzanne Morneault of Eagle Lake (left) and her daughter Faith Bridges are as close as can be in matching pajamas. The two faced a perilous situation when Faith was born via emergency cesarean section in 1995. Credit: Courtesy of Suzanne Morneault

Brandee Deprey, 26, lives in Wallagrass and is 32 weeks pregnant with her second child. Deprey said she is at risk of experiencing such a tragedy.

Her first baby, a boy named Devyn, was delivered via cesarean section at the hospital 19 months ago. The surgery was performed because Deprey experienced preeclampsia, a serious blood pressure condition that puts a mother at risk for stroke, organ failure and death.

Because she is at risk again for preeclampsia due to high blood pressure, Deprey will undergo a scheduled C-section in early June to deliver her second son, Brayden. Deprey was originally planning to have the procedure performed at NMMC, where she has received prenatal care until now, but will now deliver her baby at Cary Medical Center.

“If I were to go into labor before my scheduled C-section, depending on the severity of it and how quickly my body would be progressing, I would be terrified and stressed to  think I would have at least a 45-minute drive vs. a 10-minute drive from my house,” Deprey said.

Eagle Lake mother Suzanne Morneault said such would have been the case for her when she experienced a medical emergency while she and her husband, Ron Morneault, were expecting their fifth child in 1995.

Morneault said she nearly died when she experienced complete placenta previa, when the placenta covers the cervix, and placental abruption, in which the placenta detaches from the womb.

historic infant mortality data

“I spent many of my pregnancy days in the hospital in Bangor, and when I was at 34 weeks, they felt it was safe to come home and continue care in my area. I came home and a couple days later I began to hemorrhage severely,” Morneault said.  

Morneault’s doctor told her there wasn’t time to wait for an ambulance and that she should get to Northern Maine Medical Center as quickly as possible.

When she started to bleed, it was severe, so she traveled to the hospital by car and staff were waiting for her, she said.

Daughter Faith was born small at 4 pounds, but she was stable. Now 28, Faith Bridges shares a close bond with her mother.

“If there had been no hospital in Fort Kent, Ron would have had four children to raise on his own. I would not have made it,” Morneault said. “I am very disappointed that the administration does not see the value of that in our community.”