AUSTIN — Jessica Kirsch admits she had some trepidation at first.

As she prepared for the birth of her second child, the Albert Lea resident said she worried a bit about having a 30-minute drive from her home to the hospital where she planned to give birth. After all, she could go into labor on the road, plus, due to COVID-19, she and her husband, Ryan Kirsch, would need to drop off their first child with family as they left for the hospital.

"The idea of being in a different town is what gets everybody upset," she said.

Some Albert Lea residents were upset with Mayo Clinic's decision to move some services such as intensive care unit services, in-patient surgeries and childbirth services to Austin. Local health care advocates in Albert Lea got so far as to encourage MercyOne North Iowa to open a clinic in Albert Lea, though those services are limited at this point to family medicine.

Tricia Dahl, operations administrator for Mayo Clinic Health Systems-Albert Lea and Austin, said the consolidation of services helps Mayo Clinic staff provide better care.

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"The more you do of something, the better you get at it," she said. "So it allows us to maximize our abilities. The experience of staff is really number one, and you can’t do that when you spread staff out and have such small volumes."

What is spread out, said Crystal Studer, nurse manger of the Family Birth Center in Austin, is the space for staff to work and families to feel comfortable as a new member — or members — join their ranks.

Studer said phase three out of six was just completed and opened for the public in mid-June. Those first three phases have included a new nurses station, which helps with the flow of patient care compared to the old facility.

There are also laundry, supply and equipment rooms that make access to needed services easier.

The latest phase has rolled out five newly renovated patient delivery rooms that are significantly larger, including everything from a tub and shower in each room to seating that converts to a bed for a mother's partner and a refrigerator.

Dahl said the fridge is an example of how Mayo listened to staff and patients. With an increasing amount of patients coming from other cultures around the world, the fridge allows the families to bring food from home and celebrate the baby's birth.

Studer added that the rooms also include space for all equipment that would be needed both during and after birth so staff isn't wheeling delivery carts or bassinets from one room to the next.

In the end, it's the staff that makes the experience better. Dahl noted that many staff members who had worked at the birthing center in Albert Lea moved over to the remodeled facility in Austin.

"Crystal has done such a great job of making it their unit, not Austin’s unit," Dahl said. "They are so proud to have a patient come in and have that wonderful experience."

That experience, Kirsch said, was wonderful indeed.

Looking back to the birth of her older son — when she and her husband lived in Las Vegas — Kirsch said the drive from home to the hospital took about the same time even though they lived in the same city. But the new Family Birth Center in Austin made the trip worth it.

Even though it was her second child, the staff prepared her better for her birth and took time to help her with lactation issues, things that were lacking in Las Vegas.

"I struggled to breastfeed my first son in the hospital," she said.

When that happened, staff there simply gave her a bottle and she was never able to breastfeed her older son. However, with Andrew, the nurses and lactation specialist took time with her.

"They knew my wishes, and the nurses made sure that was what happened," Kirsch said. "We haven’t needed formula at all. There wasn't this attitude of just 'Got other patients, give him a bottle.' "