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Gallup physicians, nurses call for action at town hall

Chris Hoover, urologist at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, responds Oct. 2 to a question during a town hall meeting at First United Methodist Church in Gallup, N.M. (William C. Weaver IV/Gallup Independent via AP)

GALLUP, N.M. (AP) – When local educator Lindsey Mingus’ water broke in the middle of the night while she was pregnant with her second child, she drove herself to Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital because her husband had to stay home to care for their son, who was 3 years old at the time.

Labor and delivery nurse Beatrice Nuñez had been there to deliver Mingus’ firstborn, Isaac. She was there again this time.

“Having that same labor and delivery nurse be part of both of my children’s entrance into this world was comforting, knowing that she had been with me both times,” Mingus said during an Oct. 2 town hall at a church in Gallup.

Mingus, who has lived in Gallup with her husband for nine years and who plans to stay in the community, said Nuñez and a locum doctor caught her baby boy, Benjamin, who was predicted to be a girl.

At birth, Benjamin was diagnosed with Down syndrome. He was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque while Mingus stayed at Rehoboth McKinley by herself.

But she wasn’t entirely alone.

Mingus said Nuñez stayed with her through the nurses’ shift change. On-duty labor and delivery nurse Sara Pikaart and other nurses also stayed with her and checked on her throughout the night until her husband could arrive.

One nurse made her a sandwich to eat at 2 a.m. while she was pumping milk that she could later take to Benjamin at the UNM Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

“That meant so much to me,” she said.

Connie Liu responding to a question posed by a member of the audience Oct. 2 at the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital town hall meeting in Gallup, N.M. Physicians, nurses and community members shared testimonials about problems at Rehoboth McKinley as well as potential solutions.(William C. Weaver IV/Gallup Independent via AP)

Mingus’ emotional testimony came one week after the closure of the labor and delivery unit at Rehoboth McKinley because of a shortage of nurses after Nuñez, Pikaart and others resigned because of safety concerns and a lack of support from the hospital administration.

“The closing of the labor and delivery unit is devastating to this community because those women and nurses and care providers take care of not only the moms, the infants, but their families,” Mingus said. “And my heart breaks for this community and the expecting moms and families who now are scrambling to find their care. Going to Albuquerque isn’t always an option for women in this area. I know that that’s not something I am able to do, and we need to reinstate the L and D unit here for our families and our community.”

A call to action

The town hall also came on the heels of the physicians’ unionization vote confirmation at Rehoboth McKinley. Of 25 eligible physicians and advanced practice providers, 23 cast their ballots and a majority voted in favor of moving forward with a partnership with the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

The recent meeting was organized by UAPD representatives as well as local organizing committee members. Physicians, nurses and community members shared testimonials about problems at Rehoboth McKinley as well as potential solutions.

Rachel Flores, organizing director for the UAPD, called on those in attendance to literally stand behind the physicians and nurses present in a show of support.

Physician Caleb Lauber, left, introduces the panel Oct. 2 at the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital town hall meeting at First United Methodist Church in Gallup, N.M. Physicians, nurses and community members shared testimonials about problems at Rehoboth McKinley as well as potential solutions. (William C. Weaver IV/Gallup Independent via AP)

“Are you on board?” Flores asked. “Are you ready to take your hospital back?”

Flores, who is based in Sacramento, also issued a call to action to community members, urging them to contact members of the Gallup City Council, McKinley County Board of Commissioners and Rehoboth McKinley Board of Trustees to voice their concerns.

Physician administrators

Dr. Caleb Lauber, a former Rehoboth McKinley physician who was terminated in July, led the panel discussion.

Lauber, who is from Houck, Arizona, was the only Navajo physician and only Navajo-speaking physician at the hospital.

Lauber, who holds a master’s degree in business administration, became chief of staff in January and was the physicians’ representative on the board of trustees. Lauber said he brought questions and concerns to the board, and he had also applied to become CEO. He believes he was seen as a threat to the organization and was unfairly fired.

“The main thing I want you guys to know, and to really feel this, is this is your hospital,” he told the audience. “The hospital building is run and managed by the county through your tax dollars. You pay for this and this is our hospital, so we can continue to let it be the hospital that it is with the oversight in disarray. I’m one who doesn’t want to stand for that.”

Gallup resident Larry Smith asked what it would take to fix the problems at the hospital. He noted that CEO after CEO has come in, yet the same issues keep recurring. He said he worked briefly at the hospital after he retired from his own business.

“I watched money go out the windows like you could not believe – hundred dollar bills, thousand dollar bills going out the window, wasted,” he said. “When I worked there, there was problems with the building itself not being repaired.”

Lauber said it was important to look at the past and the fact that businessmen have been overseeing the hospital. He believes it’s time for local physicians to become administrators. He named Dr. Valory Wangler, Dr. Lawrence Andrade and Dr. Chris Hoover as examples of potential leaders.

“Individuals that are going to do the best jobs are individuals that are residing in the community that have a desire to do a good job for the community because this is their home,” Lauber said. “We’re on a downward trail right now and we really need to rectify this issue. And in my opinion, I think we need to extricate the administration that’s currently present at RMCH.”

More transparency, better oversight

Dr. Connie Liu, a physician at Gallup Indian Medical Center, stressed more transparency is needed from the board of trustees and executive leadership.

“And more expectation to answer to the community and not the other way around,” she said.

Liu said Rehoboth McKinley physicians put together a list of requests for local leaders: greater transparency; local consideration of local issues and local focus; and better oversight by the board of the executive leadership and how the hospital is run.

Hoover, Liu’s husband and a urologist at Rehoboth McKinley, stressed that he is not privy to board meeting agendas and minutes. Instead, he has to rely on the current chief of staff as his representative on the board, but he doesn’t trust that person.

“We have to hold the board accountable for our hospital,” Hoover said. “How can we do that without transparency?”

Betsy Meester, a former Rehoboth McKinley employee, said she resigned because she felt like a fraud working for the hospital. She said the problems at the hospital aren’t just in the Women’s Health Unit.

Hoover agreed, pointing out that medical assistants and other hospital staff members were conspicuously absent at the meeting because the administration has created a culture of fear of speaking out by telling employees that they are replaceable.

“We need a voice, we need to restore some balance to the power dynamic that’s at the hospital right now, so that we can ask for things that we think are reasonable, that we think are safe, that we think our patients, who are us, need and want,” he said.