A Hospital Is Selling Moms on Giving Birth in Brooklyn

As medical giants set up shop in the borough, NYU Lutheran wants to be the premier maternity destination

Jessica Ellias, of Bay Ridge, gave birth to Matthew seven weeks ago at NYU Lutheran hospital in Sunset Park (Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster)

For years now, even as Brooklyn has enjoyed a baby boom, expectant women from the brownstone belt have travelled over bridges and through tunnels to give birth in Manhattan. When this reporter was expecting five years ago, the word on the street among moms in Carroll Gardens was uniform: Manhattan was the only choice for top maternity wards. The New York Times described this pattern among affluent Brooklyn moms as “fertility flight,” declaring: “They are tied as if by an umbilical cord to Manhattan.” Indeed, last year, 50% of babies born at NYU Langone’s Tisch Hospital in Manhattan returned home to Brooklyn.

Now the NYU Langone hospital system is hoping to change all that. “We want to be the hospital of choice in Brooklyn,” said Dr. Bret Rudy, executive hospital director at NYU Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park. In January 2016, NYU Langone merged with Lutheran and now plans to invest $500 million in the hospital over the next five years. “It’s been a huge undertaking for us,” Rudy said.

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The NYU Langone system considers its hospital in Sunset Park to be its Brooklyn flagship (Photo by René Perez)

A primary focus is the maternity ward, which is being expanded and enhanced with the aim of being the “premier destination” for expectant families. Part of achieving that status is being capable of handling any fetal medical emergency–at any time of day. To that end, the hospital has recruited more than 20 nurses, six physician assistants, five midwives and six postpartum nurses. “If you need to deliver and your doctor can’t be there, there will be a doctor who can safely deliver that baby,” Rudy said.

Jessica Ellias, an attorney who lives in Bay Ridge, gave birth to her son Matthew at NYU Lutheran on April 26. Ellias said she chose the hospital because of its proximity to her home and because her obstetrician, Dr. Rosemary Ruggiero-Decarlo, delivers there. “I had never considered going into Manhattan. The only reason Manhattan would be on my radar,” she said, “is because I work in Manhattan.”

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Ellias and her husband Matthew at home with their newborn son Matthew Gregory Ellias (Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster)

As it turned out, Ellias felt lucky to have chosen a nearby hospital because she had a medical emergency at the end of her pregnancy, she said. A blood test indicated that continuing the pregnancy “would be harmful to the baby,” Ellias said, and her doctor said she needed to go straight to the hospital for an induced delivery. “The second I walked into the maternity ward, they knew my name, and they started the admission process. They induced me right away. Really, I had a positive experience. They were very professional. He was delivered safely later that night.”

Ellias said that, like other first-time moms, she pictured in her mind how she would get to the hospital many times while she was pregnant, even before knowing how helpful it would be due to the unexpected circumstances. “I live 40 or so streets from the hospital,” she said. “When the moment came, I wanted to be near the hospital.”

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Dr. Ming Tsai, who leads the maternity division at NYU Lutheran (Photo courtesy of NYU Langone)

To lead the hospital’s enhanced maternity team, NYU Langone recruited a top OB/GYN specialist, Dr. Ming Tsai, who had won recognition for improving care at Bellevue hospital in Manhattan. Tsai has done research on cesarean delivery, endometrial pathology, minimally invasive surgery and infertility. “Patients want the best care and that is our principal goal,” said Tsai, “to provide world-class, highly specialized services.”

The notion among Brooklynites that they’d need to go to Manhattan to get that level of service is not without reason. In some studies of hospital performance, Brooklyn institutions have fared relatively poorly. Brooklyn’s smaller community hospitals have had well-known struggles in the midst of changing health-care economics and have been forced to consolidate. However, Brooklyn’s rising affluence and population size have attracted the attention of the giant Manhattan hospital systems. For sake of economic efficiency, they want more patients. The Brooklyn Hospital Center in Fort Greene, founded in 1845, is now affiliated with Mount Sinai Health System. New York Methodist, in Park Slope, recently merged with the New York-Presbyterian network to become NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

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NYU Langone, a private, nonprofit institution, has expanded significantly into Brooklyn in recent years. Its Brooklyn system now sprawls across 58 sites, including clinics, specialized-care centers and the emergency room in Cobble Hill at the former site of Long Island College Hospital. The goal, said Rudy, is to provide one high standard across all of NYU Langone. In 2016, for the first time, the system ranked in the top 10 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Hospitals guide. “My personal opinion is that the highest possible level of care is the best way to get the message out,” said Rudy.

Besides luring affluent parents from the brownstone belt, the upgraded maternity center will bring a higher level of care for the diverse population of the surrounding area. NYU Lutheran delivered 3,850 babies last year, the majority of whom went home to nearby neighborhoods including Sunset Park, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst. This year the hospital expects to handle about 5,200 births.

As NYU invests heavily in its Brooklyn flagship hospital in Sunset Park, the focus on maternity is partly for customer-loyalty purposes. Giving birth is such a pivotal experience that it can establish a bond of trust between a hospital and a growing family. “We are investing very heavily in talent. By talent, I mean the nurses and physicians, and we’ll be investing in infrastructure,” Rudy said.

The growing Ellias family out for a stroll near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster)

This summer, the hospital will “refresh” the mother-baby unit by redoing floors, walls and bathrooms. “I think the environment is very important for mothers giving birth. We’re making it lighter, brighter. It’ll help the patient experience significantly.”

Strategically, NYU Langone doesn’t see its Brooklyn operation as outer-borough outpost, but an integral part of a larger system. Symbolizing that connection, NYU launched a free ferry service for its providers and employees so they could easily go back and forth between boroughs. “You don’t have to live in Brooklyn to know that it’s a special place, a bona-fide cultural capital, rich in diversity,” wrote Dr. Robert Grossman, CEO of NYU Langone, in the hospital’s newsletter. “As we expand and strengthen our ties to this great borough, we are truly building on bedrock.”

Lisa M. Collins is a freelance writer who contributes to The Bridge, The New York Times, New York magazine and other news media. Previously, she was a political and environmental reporter for daily newspapers and the Associated Press