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Maternity Wards Come to Life With Rising Birthrate

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Times Staff Writer

The birthrate in Orange County, on the decline for more than 20 years, is inching upward, and as a result maternity wards countywide are operating at full capacity.

Because of the increase in the number of babies born in Orange County, hospitals serving communities traditionally composed mostly of older residents, such as Saddleback Community Hospital in Laguna Hills, are planning to build maternity wards or to expand existing ones.

Carolyn Turner, director of the planned Women’s Health Center at Saddleback, said the hospital decided to build an $18-million, three-story addition and devote the entire second floor to obstetrics because of a recent study identifying a future shortage of obstetrical beds in Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo.

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Along with Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Santa Ana Canyon (near Yorba Linda), Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo are the fastest-growing areas in the county, said Bill Gayk, chief county demographer.

Baby Boom Couples

An increase in the number of baby boom-era couples who have reached childbearing years is responsible in part for the recent increase. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of people in the 25-to-34 age group increased from 14% to 17.9% of the total county population, said Renee Schulte, a research analyst with the county’s forecast and analysis center.

“Birthrates are going up, that’s for certain,” said Dr. Roberta Maxwell, a public health analyst for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Maxwell said the county birthrate, which had swelled to 25.7 births per 1,000 people in 1959, reached a low of 14.5 per 1,000 in 1973 but increased to 16.5 births per 1,000 in 1983.

At Fountain Valley Community Hospital, so many babies have been born since 1980 that last July administrators officially changed the name of the obstetrical unit to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

“(The birthrate) has skyrocketed,” said Sheila Lohstroh, director of public relations at Fountain Valley. “We are now delivering more than 300 babies here a month. In 1975, we delivered 1,103 (babies) for the year, but by 1983 we were up to 2,999.”

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Fountain Valley’s obstetrical unit, which opened in 1974 with 12 beds, has expanded to 50 beds and includes a $400,000 special-care nursery that was added in 1983, Lohstroh said. The obstretics nursing staff has doubled since 1982, when the unit averaged 170 deliveries a month, compared with 250 births a month in 1983, she said.

The baby business is also booming at other Orange County hospitals:

- At Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, the labor and delivery staff has tripled in the last five years, according to Penney Schubert, alternate birth center coordinator. The hospital averaged 75 to 100 deliveries a month in 1976, she said, but the rate is now up to more than 200 a month.

- Plans for a $3.2-million addition to the obstetrics unit are under way at Humana Hospital in Anaheim, said Gus Rodriguez, associate executive director. The new wing will expand the unit’s capacity from nine to 25 beds, “a reflection of the hospital’s response to the rising birthrate,” Rodriguez said.

- In Orange, St. Joseph Hospital’s obstetrical unit averages 350 to 400 deliveries a month, making it one of the county’s busiest, said Marty Swander, coordinator of prenatal education. The overflow of new mothers and babies often extends into a nearby gynecological surgery wing, and last year 4,411 babies were born at St. Joseph, nearly twice as many as 10 years ago, Swander said.

- Deliveries at Chapman General Hospital in Orange have almost doubled over the last decade, from 556 in 1975 to 1,037 last year, after dropping to a low of 417 in 1980, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Ford.

- At Mercy General in Santa Ana, the birthrate rose from 833 in 1975 to 1,117 in 1983 and 1,215 last year, according to administrative assistant Gloria Maxwell.

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- The number of babies born at Mission Community Hospital in Mission Viejo has risen from about 35 babies a month in 1973 to nearly 150 a month last year, said patient representative Jan Walker. “We’ve doubled five of our nurseries in the last two years, and now we’re expanding again to put in some intensive-care nurseries,” she said.

- Between 1978 and 1983, the number of babies born at St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton rose from 1,957 to 2,588, said Eileen Nagorner, a technical coordinator in the statistics department.

Competition for the business of parents-to-be is intense. Hospitals aggressively market alternatives to traditional delivery-room methods of childbirth and offer a wide range of prenatal classes to prepare not only expectant mothers, but fathers, siblings and grandparents as well.

‘Intelligent Consumers’

“The public is better educated about what they want,” said Lohstroh. “They do a lot of shopping around for medical services. They’re very intelligent consumers these days.”

At some hospitals, however, some of the newer birthing alternatives have met with mixed success.

A spokesman for the Medical Center of Garden Grove said the hospital “rarely uses” its alternate birthing room, which offers a bedroom-like setting where mothers deliver their babies and remain for a 12-hour recovery period, after which, with their doctor’s approval, they can go home. The option is relatively inexpensive and can be paid for in cash beforehand, she said.

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“We put in ABC (alternate birthing center) room some years ago, but it’s not as popular as we had hoped it would be,” said Jan Walker of Mission Community Hospital. Most new parents opt for traditional delivery-room births, she said.

Walker said the hospital’s other options include a “birthing chair bed,” in which women in labor sit upright to deliver their babies without having to work against gravity. Though well-known in Europe, the chair is still a new concept to parents in this country, she said.

Additional Options

But options such as alternate birthing rooms, allowing fathers to be present during Caesarean sections and videotaping a baby’s birth have had more favorable receptions at other hospitals.

“The prenatal classes are really popular,” said Fountain Valley’s Lohstroh. “We have sibling visitation, a birthing room, prenatal exercise classes and a short-stay program that is very popular. Siblings can even be in the room while the baby is being born.”

And at Anaheim General, volunteer labor coaches are available to help single mothers through the birth process, said Judy Rees, perinatal coordinator on the nursing staff.

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