St. Bernard expands clinic to help more moms

Mother Mary Clare Bezner, OSB, (center) and staff members of St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony, announcing the expansion of its pregnancy clinic April 12. (Courtesy Mitchell Nail)
Mother Mary Clare Bezner, OSB, (center) and staff members of St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony, announcing the expansion of its pregnancy clinic April 12. (Courtesy Mitchell Nail)

St. Bernards Healthcare announced April 12 new funds would allow them to expand pregnancy care for moms and babies in need. 

Founded and sponsored by the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, St. Bernards have provided health care for 124 years. The expansion, in particular, allows St. Bernards to better serve low-income mothers and their families. 

Mitchell Nail, media relations manager for St. Bernards, said the Pregnancy Clinic opened in 2016, and the expansion will continue helping vulnerable patients. 

Now, the clinic will have a non-stress test room, allowing doctors to see more patients in a timely manner and an additional ultrasound room. Grants also allowed the clinic to hire a third nurse practitioner, increasing the number of patients that can be seen each day by 20 and will allow the clinic to expand postpartum care. 

“We opened the clinic eight years ago because we saw a need for all women to receive prenatal and postpartum care, regardless of their ability to pay,” Nail said. “… It's open to all pregnant women, whether or not they have insurance or if they're simply underinsured.”

Earlier this year, Blue & You, administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, gave the clinic $24,100. The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration’s Pregnancy Help Organization gave St. Bernards Pregnancy Clinic another $40,000.

“The thought behind (opening the pregnancy clinic in 2016) was, in the labor and delivery unit, and we were seeing more and more patients come in with no prenatal care,” Dana Lands, nursing director of Women’s & Children’s Services, said. “There were sometimes judgments made about that. 

“… Well, the more we start talking to the patients, they certainly wanted prenatal care. They wanted to take care of themselves and their baby, but everywhere around us in the region required some type of payment to get in and get prenatal care and they simply couldn't do it,  they didn't have the transportation to get there, they didn't know how to sign up for Medicaid.”

Lands said when the hospital decided to open the pregnancy clinic, it “got overwhelmed (with patients) really quickly.”

“The clinic started to grow, which was a great problem to have,” Lands said. 

Lands said 40 to 50 percent of the babies delivered at St. Bernards were connected to the hospital through the pregnancy clinic. 

As Lands and St. Bernards pinpointed the factors that obstructed moms-to-be from receiving prenatal care, such as poverty and lack of transportation, more solutions were proposed to alleviate struggles. The success of the Jonesboro pregnancy clinic led to a clinic being opened in Walnut Ridge last year. Another clinic location in Osceola is planned. 

“With the idea of transportation being an issue, we reached out to Lawrence Memorial Health in Walnut Ridge with the rural community close by,” Lands said. “We knew that we had a large patient population there that was struggling to get to Jonesboro. We opened a satellite clinic there, and one day a week we see patients for prenatal care.”

Lands said the goal is to help the patients who often fall through the healthcare system’s cracks. 

“We serve the underserved,” Lands said. “It doesn't matter to us if you have your Medicaid, if you know how to apply, if you speak English, if you have transportation or not, we're going to help you get there and get taken care of. (The pregnancy clinic has) a very robust translation system. They have some staff who speak Spanish that reach out into the communities to bring the patients in. 

“We have an outreach coordinator that helps get the word out in various communities. We've got a social worker that stays in tune with the patient. She sees every patient that comes through the door to make sure that they know how to sign up for Medicaid. They get them in touch with local resources to help them do that. You know, we start doing a social determinant of health screening to find out what each patient's individual needs are.”

The expansion also allows pregnancy clinic staff to see more patients at a time, conduct fetal monitoring, prenatal testing and lab work. The clinic has also started conducting postpartum support group meetings, as well as hosting educational opportunities. 

The clinic expansion comes at a pivotal time — Arkansas has the highest maternal mortality rate, and the third-highest infant mortality rate, in the United States. 

“(Patients) need care that first year, even if they're still considered postpartum,” Lands said. “What if they're suffering from mental health issues or high blood pressure issues from their pregnancy? We just felt like we were sort of leaving them hanging. So with the postpartum support groups and education, that allows us to still connect with that patient free of charge.”

Sister Johanna Marie Melnyk, OSB, vice president for mission and ethics and archivist for St. Bernards Healthcare, said the pregnancy clinic also offers pregnancy tests, lactation consultations and other services designed to “lay the foundations.”

“It's extremely important for us not just to deliver healthy babies but also to lay the foundations for good women's and children's health in the long term,” Sister Johanna said. “Because there are particular challenges for rural communities, we recently started bringing our Pregnancy Clinic services to the St. Bernards Specialty Clinic adjacent to Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Walnut Ridge. When staff and funding allow, we would love to bring these services to other areas as well.

“Personally, I am very proud of the range of services St. Bernards is able to offer moms and babies through the clinics and also at our medical center in Jonesboro. This is what it means to value every human life from the moment of conception. Our Birthcare Center within St. Bernards Medical Center delivered 1,757 babies in 2023 — a record for us — and we want to continue caring for them and their families as they grow.”

Katie Zakrzewski

Katie Zakrzewski joined Arkansas Catholic as associate editor in 2023 after working in local media and the environmental sector. A member of St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, she recently completed her master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School.

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