Halfway into the late-night drive from Craig to UCHealth Birth Center at Yampa Valley Medical Center in south Steamboat Springs, contractions for first-time pregnant mom Caroline Riley were three minutes apart.
Her baby was coming 16 days early with limited warning earlier that day. When her labor started at home about 9:15 p.m., the muscle contractions were already five minutes apart. Still a 45-minute drive from the regional birth center, Riley told her fiance she was in a lot of pain starting near Hayden.
When the couple arrived at YVMC, her contractions were about two and a half minutes apart. Riley was in the birth center pushing about 30 minutes later. Son Jameson was born healthy on Nov. 23 some 45 minutes after arrival at the birth center, with no time for pain medications for mom.
“It was speedy from the moment it started,” Riley said at home in Craig. “It happened so rapidly; it was a very intense labor. But in the end, everything was fine.”
Riley has nothing but praise for attending obstetrician Dr. Diane Petersen from UCHealth Women’s Care Clinic who kept her calm during the intense labor.
“You couldn’t have asked for anyone better to keep me sane in that moment of physical pain that you cannot describe,” Riley said.
A well-respected local physician for 12 years, following a 20-year career in Minnesota, Petersen will retire at the end of December. That retirement is another piece of the transitioning women’s health care picture in the Yampa Valley, that was complicated by the January 2020 closure of the birth center at Memorial Regional Health in Craig.
UCHealth birth center records show 109 babies of mothers from Moffat County were born at YVMC this year through Nov. 28. Through those 11 months, the regional birth center delivered 175 babies of Routt County moms, delivered five sets of twins and cared for 68 babies in the special care nursery.
As of Nov. 28, YVMC staff had delivered 328 babies so far this year, which compares to 328 babies throughout 2020 and 290 in 2019. Pregnant moms come from Grand, Rio Blanco, Jackson, Eagle and other Colorado counties as well as from Carbon County, Wyoming. For other birthing centers available to women in Northwest Colorado, the next closest centers are in Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Vail and Rawlins, Wyoming.
Jennifer Riley, vice president and chief operations officer at Memorial Regional Health, said closing the Craig birth center almost two years ago was a very difficult decision.
“Birth rates around the state and country are declining,” Riley said. “MRH was constantly faced with recruiting/retention issues of both providers and support staff. If you look at trends in Colorado, OB service lines are closing in a lot of places because they are difficult to operate and manage.”
Since the Craig birth center closed, three moms have given birth at the Craig hospital during timely situations with babies delivered by local family medicine or hospital doctors, Riley said. No Craig area women have given birth in an ambulance on the way to the birth center in Steamboat because women in active labor are not transported, Riley said.
Independent midwife Astrid Grove of Birthroot Midwifery, who opened an office in Steamboat in summer 2020, has served clients from Steamboat, Craig, Kremmling and Vail. Grove said clients “are now choosing home births for a myriad of reasons, which includes not wanting to travel all the way to Steamboat in labor.”
After letting obstetrics staff go in early 2020, Memorial Regional Hospital hired a half-time gynecologist Dr. Robert Samuelson in June 2021, who does not do obstetrics.
This spring, UCHealth Yampa Women’s Clinic added Thursdays to coverage at their clinic in Craig that is now open weekdays except Tuesdays.
UCHealth announced last week the hiring of two new OB/GYN doctors. Dr. Elaine Stickrath, currently a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist at Denver Health Medical Center and assistant professor at University of Colorado School of Medicine, will join the practice at the end of January 2022. Dr. Kathryn Feller, currently a resident physician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, will join the practice in early fall 2022.
Ted Morton, practice administrator for clinics at UCHealth YVMC, said housing availability issues and finding the best fit for the local full-service OB/GYN practice model added challenges to the search for doctors, who must live within 20 minutes of the hospital.
Other women’s care offices are also reporting busy schedules of patients, including Dr. Leslie Ahlmeyer at Yampa Valley OB/GYN. Ahlmeyer, who has served locally for 26 years but no longer does deliveries, said her patients include women from across the region, women new to the valley who are location-neutral workers and young women she delivered as babies.
Whitney Phillips, vice president of brand experience for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said maintaining sufficient staffing levels also has been a concern for the clinic on 11th Street in Steamboat. The busy office, that does not offer prenatal or obstetrics care, is staffed by a nurse practitioner four days a week but currently needs to hire a health center assistant.
“Patients in more rural areas already face additional barriers to accessing the care they need. When communities also face provider shortages, it places an additional burden on those patients,” Phillips said of current transitions in women’s care in the valley.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email [email protected]