WARD COUNTY, TEXAS, MARCH 2023 — Natalia is about six months pregnant, and like too many women in the U.S., she has to travel 30-45 minutes to get to the nearest birthing hospital in Odessa. While there’s an ER in her town, Monahans, it’s small, without obstetric services, and there’s usually a wait—something most pregnant woman can’t afford.
“During an emergency, 30 minutes is a lot of time, especially when you're pregnant,” Natalia says. “Right now, I don't have any issues, but I don't know about the future. Or when I'm about to give birth. I don't know how much of the road I can take.”
In rural America, maternal healthcare is vanishing. In the last year, the number of birthing hospitals decreased by 4%. While 1 in 10 babies are delivered in rural community hospitals, nearly half don’t offer obstetric services.
“We have patients that come into our area from 30 minutes to almost four hours away,” says Marol Nieto, FNP-C, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “We see patients from little cities like Monahans just because there's not any prenatal care available in these small towns. And they have to drive all this way just to be able to get that prenatal care—not even just for the delivery, but for their regular checkups because there's not an obstetric and gynecologist available in those areas.”
Like most pregnant women in her county, Natalia is planning to give birth in Odessa where better resources and hospitals are available. Traveling to big cities for prenatal care appointments and to give birth is the norm for women in maternity care deserts, where poverty is often a major disparity. With the cost of gas, this is not sustainable. In Ward County, 13.4% of residents live below the poverty line.
“They need to prioritize hospitals and women's care so we don't depend on the big cities,” Natalia emphasizes. And she’s right. Rural maternal healthcare in the U.S. is just one of the many ways this country is failing its most vulnerable people. That’s why we’ll continue raising awareness of the maternal and infant health crisis by sharing stories like Natalia’s until we see real change.