About 100 community members pack the Fort Kent Town Office on Tuesday evening to discuss concerns about Northern Maine Medical Center during a meeting organized by the group Save NMMC. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — It was standing room only at the Fort Kent Town Office Tuesday evening when about 100 community members gathered to discuss concerns regarding the fate of their local hospital.

The discussion centered on several key issues facing Northern Maine Medical Center including a mass exodus of physicians and nurses and the board’s announcement it would close the obstetrics unit at the end of the month due in part to a lack of staff.

The group Save NMMC organized the event. Founding member Toby Jandreau said the group has confirmed that 15 health care providers have left the hospital in the past year since CEO Jeff Zewe was hired. The community group’s Facebook page has attracted around 700 members in just a few days.

Christine Desjardins drew a standing ovation from the crowd after speaking of her experience as a nurse manager on the OB unit.

“Our OB did not stand a chance under this current administration,” Desjardins said. “In just one year, our OB unit has closed and we lost four fantastic providers.”

She said attempts to hire or train nurses to work on the unit were thwarted by administrators who did not follow up on hiring qualified candidates or training nurses from other units who showed interest in working with OB patients.

Desjardins said she left her job at the hospital for her well-being.

“The work environment became very toxic and dysfunctional. I left because I lost faith and trust in our administrators,” she said.

Pharmacist Charles Ouellette, who owns St. John Valley Pharmacy in Fort Kent, said he understands the hospital board has difficult decisions to make. He said its decisions are not always popular, but said he thought the board members are acting in good faith.

Jandreau called for “increased transparency” from hospital administration and outlined a list of requests of the NMMC board of trustees. They included that the board meet with group organizers and reveal financial information regarding the hospital; that a pause is placed on major changes at the hospital; that all equipment is kept at the hospital; and that future board meetings be held publicly with an opportunity for community members to speak.

Zewe did not attend the meeting, but several members of the board were present as well as the hospital’s chief operating officer. They were asked not to speak during the session.

Zewe had said last week that a group commissioned by the hospital to study its finances told the board that if it kept up standard operating procedure, the hospital would not survive beyond Christmas of 2023. Hospital spokesperson Kris Malmborg refused to provide the name of the group that performed the study.

Jandreau has asked that the hospital share the findings of this study with the public.

Hospital administrators said last week that they are capitalizing on the facility’s strengths, including the only behavioral health unit for adults and children north of Bangor; a new radiology group that provides an in-house radiologist two days a week; and the hiring of two new orthopedic surgeons and an oncologist. The hospital is also recruiting for a full-time cardiologist.

A petition focusing on the community group’s requests of the board was available after the meeting Tuesday for members of the public to sign, and lawn signs reading Save NMMC were handed out.