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Women's Birth & Wellness Center bankrupt after massive staff loss, ending birth services

The recently closed Women's Birth and Wellness Center pictured on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Women’s Birth & Wellness Center, a birth center serving the Chapel Hill community, closed in mid-2022.

The center was one of only two independent birth centers remaining in North Carolina. 

The WBWC was founded originally in 1996 by Maureen Darcey as the Piedmont Women’s Health Center. In 2003, the center rebranded to the Women’s Health & Wellness Center and was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in October 2003.

Darcey was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she stepped down as the executive director of the WBWC in 2019, after which the board of directors at the center began a search for a new executive director. Darcey died on Jan. 13, 2021.

Lisa Lowe-Hall was named the new executive director in early 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic began.

Maria Ellis, a former nurse manager at WBWC, said the WBWC was the longest-freestanding birth center in the country until its closure in 2022.

Ellis worked at the center from 2014 to 2020, and then rejoined the staff as nurse manager in August 2021 until it closed.

Ellis said the pandemic, along with administrative changes, presented a difficult working environment for the clinical staff.

“We were having to reconfigure everything, so it was a really challenging time to start,” Ellis said. “I would say like it seemed like fairly early on, there were some tensions or differences in opinion on the direction that the birth center should take between the administrative team and the clinical team.”

Claire Hartman worked as a part-time labor and delivery nurse at WBWC from June 2016 to June 2017. 

Hartman said she stayed in close contact with many of the nurses that remained at the center under the new management. She said Lowe-Hall "depersonalized" the center, which was another source of tension between management and staff.

The waiting room at WBWC, Hartman said, was always comfortable and resembled a living room with children's toys, magazines and art, which was all taken down.

“The person who came in stripped the birth center of all of this stuff in a weekend, and this stuff also partly had belonged to Maureen — it was personal objects that had lived in the birth center for decades — and basically went to TJ Maxx or something and created this completely corporate environment, which is not what people want at the birth center,” she said.

Lowe-Hall did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel's requests for comment before the time of publication. 

Tensions rose quickly between the administrative team and the clinical team, and many of the experienced nurses and midwives on staff resigned, were laid off or were forced to quit, Ellis said.

“No one felt like the other side was listening to each other,” Ellis said. “The technical team was in fact really short-staffed, overworked and having a hard time.”

By North Carolina state law, midwives cannot practice autonomously and must have an overseeing physician. The position of medical director at the WBWC was a physician, which made it possible for midwives to practice at the clinic.

Hartman said a large part of what made the WBWC special was support from UNC Family Medicine, which was the "physician body" that oversaw the clinic. UNC Family Medicine's involvement gave the WBWC midwives hospital privileges, which made it possible for the center to transport emergency patients to UNC Hospitals with their midwives.

She said this was a privilege that Darcey had worked toward. Hartman said the birth center became unstable after many of the experienced midwives left and UNC Family Medicine pulled its support.

Sacha Bryan, the fetal care center nurse coordinator at UNC Hospitals, worked in labor and delivery for nine years.

During her time in labor and delivery, Bryan said she worked very closely with the center, specifically when WBWC patients would have to be transferred to the hospital, and said it was always a pleasure to work with them.

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“They provided excellent care, and were a great resource to our community,” Bryan said. “I think them closing is a loss to our community.”

In addition to births, the WBWC also provided lactation services, prenatal and primary care, classes and support groups.  

The birth center advertised its continued care to all patients regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, ethnicity or immigration status.

Hartman said UNC Family Medicine pulled out of its relationship with the center, and Ellis said the WBWC's medical director left in 2022. These things made it clear that WBWC could not keep going, Ellis said.

In the spring of 2022, Ellis said nearly all of the remaining midwives left the center, and rather than negotiate, the administration and the board let them leave. 

Following this extreme loss in staff, the board of the birth center sent out an email to patients that claimed there was confusion and misinformation regarding the center and also stressed its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Ellis said the staff was in favor of increased diversity, but management was showing the staff the opposite, which was not a way to recruit new staff.

"It felt like a way to explain something that they didn't want to fully explain," she said.

In May 2022, the board called a staff-wide Zoom meeting.

“They opened up the Zoom meeting and said, ‘As of today, we are no longer offering birth services,’” Ellis said. “And so that meant that patients who were full-term, expecting to have their babies there, were told to go to the hospital. The birth center midwives would meet them there for a certain amount of time, but that of course meant that my staff (of nurses) were immediately laid off.”

The administrative team at the center, including the executive director and the board, have advertised that they are undergoing a rebranding.

However, multiple patient claims of not being reimbursed or receiving owed money led the center to investigate its finances. Hartman said that the center discovered that it was not financially viable after it started investigating.

WBWC officially stopped providing patient services on Sept. 30, 2022 and filed for bankruptcy in October 2022.

The only operational, independent birth center in the state is Natural Beginnings Birth and Wellness Center in Statesville, according to data from 2021. They offer birth services, lactation support, prenatal care and women’s health care. 

Locally, MAAME, Inc., Mobilizing African American Mothers through Empowerment, is a maternal health organization that strives to offer resources, education, services and support for Black, Indigenous and other people of color. 

MAAME is one of many other maternal health and doula organizations in the Triangle that are working to fill some of the gap left by WBWC's closure.


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