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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Freeway Labor Isn't Just Construction Work

The number of babies born on the way to hospitals is rising. Some say traffic congestion is one of the reasons.

September 10, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baby, oh, baby, traffic is really getting bad.

Every year, Southern California's worsening traffic costs us billions of dollars in lost productivity. It is blamed for some of the filthiest air in the nation. It adds stress and irritation to our daily lives, forcing us to spend less time with our families and more time with death grips on our steering wheels.

Now, it seems our unyielding freeway congestion may be taking its toll on moms and their newborns.

In Los Angeles County, the number of children born on the way to a hospital increased from 175 in 1997 to 204 in 2000. And some health-care professionals believe our sluggish freeway speeds are partly to blame.

Freeway births are still very uncommon. Only one out of every 790 births in the county takes place on the way to a hospital or medical center, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. There are, of course, other factors that could be at play, such as the long list of medical centers and clinics that have closed in recent years, making the trip to a delivery room longer. Also, more and more people lack easy access to transportation and spend precious time scrambling for rides to the hospital.

While the numbers are small, some health-care officials are wondering if the worst traffic congestion in the nation is making more of those trips to the hospital longer than an expecting woman can wait.

How bad is traffic?

Freeway speeds in the county have dropped to an average of 37 mph. Half of the freeways in the county operate beyond capacity. Rush hour has turned into a "peak commute period" that extends from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Los Angeles-area motorists spend an average of 136 hours a year in rush-hour congestion.

With that kind of gridlock, it make sense that at least a few of Los Angeles County's 160,000 births each year would get snagged in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Dr. T. Murphy Goodwin, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine, said the number of "in transit" births is so small (only 0.1% of all births) that the increase may be statistically insignificant.

Nonetheless, Juliann Desmond, director of women and children services at White Memorial Medical Center in East Los Angeles, said the increase could be caused by an increase in the number of pregnant women who are not taught to recognize the signs that a baby is on the way.

Los Angeles Firefighter Richard Houle, a veteran of more than 30 years, agreed. He said most of the women he has helped give birth on the way to hospitals had been unaware of the physical signs of labor and had waited too long before getting help.

But Desmond added: "Being a daily commuter, I see that traffic could be a contributing factor."

Firefighter Delays

Houle also noted that traffic has become a growing problem for firefighters trying to get to an emergency. "That accounts for most of our delays," he said.

Whatever the reason, some hospitals officials say "in transit" births are almost a regular occurrence.

"It happens every six to eight weeks," said Carol Lee Thorpe, spokeswoman for St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. She said the most recent birth to take place on the way to her hospital happened about two months ago.

One of the most publicized "in transit" births in the area took place in 1998 when an Agoura Hills housekeeper helped deliver her daughter's baby girl in the back seat of a two-door compact car on the side of the Ventura Freeway. The baby came out limp and seemingly lifeless. But she made a full recovery, thanks to her grandmother, Esther Sanchez, who performed CPR, which she said she had learned from watching television.

When a quick-thinking grandmother is not around, paramedics or police officers often help out when a baby makes an unexpected entrance.

Two Los Angeles Police Department officers were patrolling near Van Nuys in November 1998 when Andrew Greene pulled up to the officers to ask for help with his wife, Carmina Perez, who was giving birth in the back seat of their van.

Officer Paul Lopez rushed to a nearby home to retrieve some clean towels, while Officer Kosal Bun helped deliver the baby girl, who was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Paramedics eventually transported the mother and child to the hospital, where both recovered fully.

Health-care professionals say labor is usually much shorter after the first baby, and perhaps these "in transit" births can be attributed to mothers who don't anticipate the shorter delivery time.

Internet message boards such as www.birthstories.com are pregnant with stories of women who gave birth on a freeway shoulder or street curb. One such story recounted the drama when a pregnant woman and her husband were stuck in Friday night traffic in West Los Angeles and gave birth on the shoulder of the San Diego Freeway.

The baby was affectionately known as "Freeway Sammy."

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