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Erlanger Hospital is seen from the UTC library's balcony in this Dec. 9, 2014, file photo.

As Erlanger hospital begins fundraising for its new children and women's hospital, it has created a policy that violates the very heart of what it means to care for women and their children.

In the sacredness of the delivery room, Erlanger is introducing a policy of bully tactics.

"I was literally in the middle of a contraction, and they came and got right in my face," said Mary Jane.

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David Cook

 

It was earlier this winter. Mary Jane (not her real name) and her husband had come to Erlanger's downtown campus to deliver their second child. It was going to be a beautiful day. They'd taken birthing classes, and Mary Jane planned on delivering naturally -- no drugs, no epidural.

And no eye ointment.

In 1915, Tennessee passed a law requiring doctors, nurses or midwives to treat the eyes of a newborn baby with antibiotic ointment -- then, it was silver nitrate; today, erythromycin is used -- to prevent blindness. Babies born vaginally to mothers with gonorrhea or chlamydia can develop infections that later make them go blind.

It's an antiquated law. State officials can't remember the last time someone was prosecuted for not following it. They don't even keep track of how many parents opt out.

At hospitals across the state, parents can sign a form, refusing the ointment. The Department of Children's Services is then notified. It's a fine system.

Then, Erlanger changed its policy.

Instead of honoring parental rights and wishes, Erlanger plans to bully them with security guards.

"If parents continue to refuse application of ointment, call security and administer the ointment with security at the bedside," the new policy states.

It's use-of-force coercion.

If a mother refuses, will security guards hold her down while nurses apply the ointment? If nurses refuse to apply the ointment, will Erlanger fire them?

What happens when a father cellphone-videos his wife being held down by security guards as nurses wipe eye ointment in their newborn's face?

How long before that video goes viral? Can Erlanger withstand such scrutiny, and the fat lawsuit that would surely follow?

"We deliver more than 5,000 babies a year," said spokeswoman Pat Charles. "We have never had to call security. The likelihood is we never will."

Charles said the hospital is only following the law -- a "clear and unambiguous" law, she said -- and if families are unhappy with the policy, they should contact their elected representatives in Nashville.

"We have a legal obligation to protect and preserve the eyesight of all babies delivered at our facilities," she said.

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Erlanger tile

Mary Jane and her husband told Erlanger staff they didn't want the ointment. Told them when they first toured the hospital before delivery. Told them when they arrived in labor. Each time: we want to opt out.

"Is there something we could sign?" asked Mary Jane and her husband. They even offered to take a late-term STD test. [They were virgins when they married. Their risk of gonorrhea or chlamydia? Zero.]

She said Erlanger staff never gave them clear answers, and certainly did not suggest the ultimatum that was about to come.

Mary Jane was eight centimeters dilated. Thirty minutes from delivering. And into the delivery room come two top staffers.

They weren't bringing flowers.

"They said, 'We know you don't want this, but unfortunately, this is our policy,'" Mary Jane recalled.

They gave Mary Jane and her husband two options.

"One option was to leave the state and go deliver in a different hospital," she said. "Or, we could not have our baby in the hospital."

If Erlanger would actually escort a laboring mother from its delivery room into the streets, then it is suffering from the worst blindness of all.

"At that point, we had no other choice," she said.

Their baby was born, and a nurse instantly applied the ointment. Mary Jane's husband followed, wiping it off.

"This is our child," Mary Jane said.

Not Erlanger's.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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