'Maternity ward crisis' takes center stage as Guam voters gear up for primary
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
At the Medical Executive Committee’s meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Thomas Shieh presented images and video clips of the labor and delivery ward at Guam Memorial Hospital. The visual presentation showed rainwater pouring through holes in the ceiling with mold-infested tiles, filthy towels strewn over wet floors, and hallways filled with open buckets of blue gynecologic absorbent pads floating in yellow and foul water.
The deplorable condition of the government hospital’s maternity ward represents a broken campaign promise made four years ago, according to Shieh, chair of the obstetrics department and president of the Guam Medical Association.
“GMH leaks would have been fixed with maternity plans as the brand-new nursery would have covered the rain coming in from the courtyard. Can’t suffer for another four years,” Shieh wrote in a Facebook post hashtagged “Vote4Change.”
“Mothers, their babies, their families deserve better. The people of Guam have beautiful hearts but we have to wake up and see what is happening here. Be smart and speak up with your vote,” he wrote.
While GMH has always been the center of political battle, it further summons engrossment during campaign season with politicians jostling for the voters’ attention and offering all sorts of solutions.
The “maternity ward crisis” sticks out as the main talking point as voters head to the primary election tomorrow.
In a media statement after Wednesday's meeting, Dr. Vincent Akimoto said GMH Medical Director Dr. Annie Bordallo refused to discuss the hospital facilities' problems with the physicians, claiming it was not the appropriate forum.
“Some physicians thought that dangerous hospital facilities, especially involving pregnant women and newborn children, are certainly worth the time for hospital physicians to discuss,” Akimoto said. “GMH administrators warned that since no patients or their family members had filed any formal complaints, physicians should just stick to clinical issues.”
Akimoto said local medical industry executives have been discussing a probable private-sector solution to Guam’s OB facilities crisis.
“A group of independent OB-GYN doctors is planning to move their talents to the Guam Regional Medical Center,” Akimoto said. “Reportedly, OB leaders Dr. John Slidell and Dr. Kurt Bieling are among the physicians ready to move their pregnant patients from the decaying Guam Memorial Hospital to the gleaming bright Guam Regional Medical Center.”
He said GRMC Chairman Jose Gonzales is flying from Manila this week to meet with Guam medical leaders about the possible resurrection of the GRMC OB department.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has set her eyes on building a new integrated medical and health care complex at an abandoned football field in Mangilao. She set aside $300 million from the federal Covid-relief funds for the project, citing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2020 report that it would cost more to repair GMH than build a replacement facility.
Congressman Mike San Nicolas, who is challenging the governor in the Democratic primary, maintains that fixing GMH should be a priority. He noted that it would take at least seven years to build a new medical facility. Before then, the federal money will have expired, he said in his last congressional address.
Shieh is skeptical of the project as well.
“Even if it is built, it won’t be ready for at least eight years to transition from now,” he said. “In the meantime, mothers and babies are suffering inside an inhumane facility at GMH. Where pregnant moms in labor are moved four to five times in labor, AC flow malfunctioning, toilets that take four flushes to remove feces, and other issues,” he wrote in his social media post.
“My advice, if the governor could give the hotels $65 million, and millions to other nonessential areas, I would think she can spare $15 million to update the place for mothers and babies,” he added.
The Pacific Island Times reached out to the governor's office for comment but has yet to receive a reply as of this writing.
Akimoto warned that the beginning of Guam’s monsoon rainy weather was “more than GMH’s beleaguered facilities could handle.”
“Making matters even more intolerable were now broken air conditioning units in the newborn nursery,” Akimoto said.
“The broken HVAC system forced the use of makeshift airflow machines which video recordings showed were likely violating the Guam building code and presenting a fire hazard to vulnerable patients," he added.
Sen. Telo Taitague proposed tapping surplus from fiscal 2022 general fund revenues and other identifiable sources to facilitate the GMH repairs based on the Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendations.
The Corps of Engineers estimated it would cost $761 million to retrofit all of the infrastructure to meet the current building code and hospital accreditation criteria.
“GMH continues to seek federal support to help pay for some of the projects recommended by the USACE, but the hospital’s competitive federal grant application did not go through,” Taitague said
As for the labor and delivery ward, she noted that P.L. 32-20, which was enacted in October 2014, authorized the Guam Economic Development Authority and the governor’s office to arrange a line of credit, a revolving loan fund, or a $7 million direct loan to fund repairs.
She also mentioned P.L. 33-151, which increases the amount to $9.2 million and authorizes the privatization of labor and delivery ward operations or facilities.
“While I recognize the importance of repairing GMH’s labor and delivery ward, I’m also aware that repairs to other areas of the hospital are desperately needed as they directly support labor and delivery services and other critical care units at Guam’s only public hospital,” Taitague said.