PANAMA CITY — Summer Medley expected to give birth on Monday, but her daughter had other plans, choosing to start the show about five days early.
Then she kept her mom waiting.
Amani Sofia Wheeler was finally born the next day at 12:12 p.m. on Aug. 15 at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center.
“I’ve had a very good pregnancy — it’s been very easy with no complications,” Medley said.
At 6.9 pounds and 18 inches long, Amani was one of the most recent babies born at Gulf Coast Regional and part of an apparent recent uptick in area births. Some health experts say birth rates can rise after disasters like Hurricane Michael. Meanwhile, the devastating hurricane has taken its toll on the medical community, straining obstetrician services.
Brad Griffin, CEO of Gulf Coast, said his hospital started seeing a rise in births in July, about nine months after the Oct. 10, Category 5 hurricane.
“In the month of July, we delivered over 230 babies — that’s the most we’ve delivered since before the hurricane,” Griffin said.
Griffin said the hospital typically averages between 200 and 210 births a month.
“Part of that is the hurricane bump or whatever you want to call it,” Griffin said of the birth increase. “We’re expecting a high delivery month next month and for the next several months.”
According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Population Economics, which examined storm advisory data from 47 Atlantic and Gulf Coast counties for a six-year period, there was some evidence to support that birth rates can rise after hurricanes. The study mainly attributes the increases to lack of access to birth control refills, clinics and doctors’ offices after disasters.
Griffin noted that Gulf Coast could deal with a rise in births.
“We’re fully capable of handling more patients,” Griffin said.
But while the hurricane might be partially responsible for a rise in pregnancies, its lingering impact has put strain on obstetrician services and physicians.
Coastal OBGYN in Panama City announced last month that it would shut its doors in September after 25 years of service. Coastal served Bay Medical Sacred Heart in Panama City, which decided earlier this year not to reopen its already limited baby delivery services because of the hurricane.
The loss of Coastal will leave just two physician groups, Emerald Coast OBGYN and All About Women OBGYN in Panama City. Also, Dr. Bryce Jackson, who has a solo obstetrician practice in the city, will be available.
Dr. Sam Wolf with Emerald Coast OBGYN, said his office had already been strained by heavy workloads and expects that to worsen once Coastal closes completely. Wolf said his practice was still understaffed because of the hurricane damage.
“It’s difficult to recruit to the town,” Wolf said.
Wolf added that patients from Coastal have already started transferring to his practice.
“We’re as busy as we can possibly be,” Wolf said. “ There definitely will be a little bit of a crunch over the next few years.”
Wolf said part of his increased workload could also be due to more women getting pregnant after the hurricane.
“Some of that was just playing catchup since we were closed in November but some were new pregnancies,” Wolf said of the workload. “There’s multiple factors here at work and there is a little bit of a baby boom.”
The hurricane mostly caused inconvenience for Medley.
Medley’s Panama City apartment was heavily damaged by the storm. Medley tried to stay there for a few weeks for work but that became too difficult, so she moved in with her grandmother in Apalachicola, nearly two hours away. The move made doctor and hospital visits in Panama City a bit of a challenge.
“I’ve been driving a lot, especially when I started needing weekly visits,” Medley said. “There aren’t any doctors or hospitals that are any closer.”