On Sunday Nov. 5, protesters wave to passing vehicles on Ashby Avenue to prevent Sutter Health from stripping acute care services at Alta Bates. Photo: David Yee

Local officials, nurses and families rallied outside Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley on Sunday to protest Sutter Health’s plans to shut down what they call the “birthplace of the East Bay.” The healthcare giant plans to move all acute care services to its Oakland campus, in compliance with state law requiring seismic upgrades to hospitals by 2030. Outpatient services would remain at the Berkeley site.

Billed as a “stroller brigade,” Sunday’s protest, which was attended by around 300 people, was part of an ongoing effort by Berkeley and regional leaders, along with the California Nurses Association, to pressure Sutter to invest in retrofitting the Berkeley facility or rebuilding elsewhere nearby.

Removing acute care services from the site would leave a large swath of the region, from Rodeo to Oakland, without a full-service hospital, as San Pablo’s Doctors Medical Center closed in 2015. Opponents of the closure predict nightmare scenarios where ambulances, carrying patients in critical states to Oakland from miles away, get stuck behind stop-and-go traffic on I-80.

The Nov. 5 rally was billed as a “stroller brigade.” Photo: Ted Friedman

Sutter rejects the rhetoric around the “closure” of the hospital, writing in a statement distributed by representatives at the rally Sunday that the Berkeley facility is simply being “repurposed,” and inpatient services moved to an expanded and revamped Summit campus on “Pill Hill,” which is around Telegraph and 30th in Oakland. The under three-mile difference between the Berkeley and Oakland sites does not amount to the life-or-death distance it is made out to be, Sutter has said. New outpatient services, including cancer care and urgent care, will be added in Berkeley, according to the statement.

“This consolidation plan is based on how patients access hospital care today,” the statement said. “Fewer people receive inpatient care in hospitals.”

The Sunday activities began around 11:30 a.m., when hospital employees, clad in red National Nurses United gear, and protesters, some pushing strollers, marched around the Ashby Avenue lawn. Games, snacks and temporary tattoos were offered to kids. Officials and nurses delivered speeches around noon.

“It is criminal for Sutter to close not just the maternity and delivery services, but the only emergency room between Richmond and downtown Oakland,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín to the crowd during the rally. “People’s lives are at risk, and for what reason? To make a few extra bucks? The entire leadership of the entire I-80 corridor — we’re united.”

At the rally, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Sutter’s plans for Alta Bates are “criminal.” Photo: David Yee

Under former Mayor Tom Bates, the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the closure, which Sutter has said could happen anytime between 2018 and 2030. During his first week in office, Arreguín convened a task force to explore how the closure could be prevented. State Senator Nancy Skinner also introduced a bill early this year that would have required approval from the attorney general before a full-service hospital was closed, but it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown after passing the state Senate and Assembly.

The City Council has discussed re-zoning the Ashby and Regent Street site to ensure it remains a hospital. “We’re looking at other operators,” Arreguín told Berkeleyside during the stroller brigade. “If Sutter wants to close, we’re not going to leave Berkeley without emergency care.”

Other Berkeley officials joined in the protest Sunday, including Councilwoman Lori Droste, whose district includes the hospital, Councilwoman Kate Harrison and School Board member Judy Appel, who is running for state Assembly in District 15.

One of the brigade’s strollers carried an unexpected passenger. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, who is also running for the Assembly seat, was at the event as well, and told Berkeleyside he agreed with the mayor’s description of a unified elected coalition against the closure. Sutter made a mistake, he said Sunday, in thinking Oakland would welcome the new services. “Pill Hill is at capacity” and many of his North Oakland constituents use Alta Bates, he said.

Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, Alta Bates nurse and El Cerrito City Councilwoman, told protesters her husband and two sons were all born at the hospital. The “birthplace of the East Bay” nickname is a reference to all the babies born over the years at facility.

“This hospital has been here since my great-grandmother was at Cal,” said Pardue-Okimoto, who is running for the D-15 Assembly seat as well. She has organized with the nurses union against what they describe as insufficient staffing and equipment at Alta Bates.

Current Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who is vacating the seat to run for superintendent of public instruction, also blasted Sutter’s plans. A co-author of the bill for single-payer healthcare in California, Thurmond said: “If hospitals didn’t profit off healthcare, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Berkeley resident Mike Wilson took the mic to tell the crowd he knew the difference a few minutes could make en route to a hospital. His wife Megan Schwarzman was run over by a driver while biking in Berkeley in 2016. While Wilson was home with their young son and blissfuly unaware, Schwarzman was being dragged for 60 feet under the car. Paramedics showed up instantly and rushed her to Highland Hospital, where she survived emergency surgery.

“Meg was bleeding heavily internally, and the trauma team later told me that had paramedics taken five more minutes to get her there, she likely would have died right there in front of them,” Wilson said.

Mike Wilson, left, Meg Schwarzman (grey jacket) and son Oliver. Schwarzman’s miraculous recovery from emergency surgery minutes after a devastating cycling accident demonstrates the importance of having a hospital nearby, Wilson said. Photo: David Yee
Protester Fifer Garesi said she would be paralyzed if she hadn’t been treated at Alta Bates after an accident. Photo: Ted Friedman

He was not the only person in the crowd to make the point.

Carrying a sign that said “Alta Bates saved my life,” Berkeley resident Fifer Garesi told Berkeleyside “it was an issue of timing” when she was also cycling and hit by a car by Berkeley Bowl.

“Without this hospital I would be paralyzed,” she said.

When the rally ended at 1 p.m. the crowd had dwindled, but those who remained embarked on a march around the neighborhood, accompanied by a brass band.

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...