Friday, November 19, 1999

The sad death of a place for birth and life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The hospital where I was born is going out of business. After 102 years of birthing babies at Oak Street, Bethesda Hospital is calling it quits.

        The closing of Bethesda Oak, I'm told, is purely a business decision.

        Admissions are down. Beds go empty. Bethesda's losing money — $100 million-plus since 1989. Time to close. Last day is March 31, 2000. Say goodbye to the neighborhood, the patients, the doctors and nurses, the orderlies, the cooks and all the other hospital employees, all 620 of them. And have a nice day, courtesy of the impersonal world of mismanaged health care.

        Bethesda's closing leaves me feeling old and young, angry and sad, all at the same time.

        I'm feeling old because hospitals are supposed to last forever. They're not like a corner gas station: here today, a gravel lot tomorrow. Hospitals are big and imposing. They're thought to be permanent and the people inside do work of permanence, mending bodies, healing lives.

        So, when the place where you came into this world goes out, when you're about to outlast a hospital, the bones are bound to suffer twinges of ancientness.

        At the same time, I feel young. Real young. Like a newborn. The end for Bethesda recalls oft-told family tales surrounding my first slap on the rear end.

        The announced closing also makes me angry and sad for the community's loss. Cincinnati needs all of the Bethesdas it can get. A hospital like this, where delivering babies is a specialty, is a dreams-come-true factory. The future goes out the door every day, wrapped in a blanket and cradled in a mother's arms.

Waiting rooms
        My mom relishes telling of my slow birth. It began eons ago on a very warm Thanksgiving. She complained of back pains at dinner. My grandmother gave a knowing glance. The baby was on the way.

        The next night, my mom wrapped herself in a green spring coat as she walked up the steps and into Bethesda's main entrance. From her room, 207, she could see Oak Street and the roof over the entrance from her window. But she was not up for sightseeing. She was in labor.

        Two days later, with the weather changing from spring-like to wintry, I was born — a slowpoke then and now.

        While I took my time getting here, my dad paced about a room populated by my grandparents. They waited outside a maternity ward where no less than 250,000 fathers have paced and worried since Bethesda opened in 1897.

        For 1999, the hospital's last full year, another 1,900 births are expected. That number translates to lots of pacing fathers giving voice to hopes and prayers. I hope the baby's all right. Please let me say mother and child are doing well.

        As they pace, the fathers make plans. I want her to have the best. Have to start saving for his education. Don't want my kid working in a machine shop all day bent over a lathe like his old man. Need to work some overtime. There's another mouth to feed.

        Those thoughts, the thoughts of men on the verge of fatherhood, went through my dad's head as he paced outside Room 207.

        My mom knows that room number. It's etched in her memory and written, as well, in a blue booklet she's saved, a booklet titled, Baby's Record. The booklet was a gift from the facility known then as Bethesda Maternity Hospital.

        Today, this healing place goes by the more impersonal name, Bethesda Oak. Soon, it will be Bethesda Ghost.

        The thought leaves me feeling empty, as empty as Bethesda will eventually be. I keep reminding myself that closing this hospital is just a business decision. But that doesn't erase the feeling of emptiness.

        Next year at this time, the hospital will be history. Future generations will know it only as a victim of cost cutting and saving money.

        I have better memories. To me, Bethesda will always be a hospital dedicated to saving lives and delivering babies.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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