Sara Hatcher, an expectant mom in Yellowknife due just before Christmas, had her plans for the birth of her second child all set.
She had a doula she liked. Her parents had booked flights from Atlantic Canada to be with her and her partner, a rotational mine worker, who was working now to make sure he’d be off when she’d need him by her side.
On Monday, those plans were shattered.
The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority said “staffing challenges” at Yellowknife’s only hospital, Stanton Territorial Hospital, means it can’t operate birthing services safely, so it decided to transfer many expectant mothers in the territory and parts of Nunavut with due dates from Dec. 10 until Feb. 21 to Edmonton to deliver their babies.
Families relying on the Inuvik hospital, midwifery supports in Fort Smith and services in Hay River won’t be affected. Families in western Nunavut, who normally travel to Yellowknife ahead of their births, will now have to travel even farther.
Hatcher said she felt blindsided by the announcement. She has only about a week to leave for Edmonton so that she is not travelling beyond being 37 weeks pregnant, the recommended limit for expectant mothers planning to travel. This means she will be in Edmonton for a few weeks before the delivery.
With no family in Yellowknife, Hatcher doesn’t know what to do with her toddler. The territory will pay for one support person to go with her, but her husband isn’t off rotation yet, and she’s being told she needs to travel.
“It’s very stressful and it’s not good for the baby and I,” she said.
‘Who’s going to watch him?’
Naomi Pearl, in Fort Good Hope, is also feeling overwhelmed.
While she would have needed to leave her small community to deliver the baby at the hospital in Yellowknife, her mother is in Yellowknife, making it a community she would have wanted to give birth in, and where she gave birth to her first child.
“Everything is so complicated. I don’t know what to think,” she said.
The transfer to Edmonton means she’ll have to be away from her son for three to five weeks, which is too long, she said.
“Who is going to watch him? I’m just worried because my son is always with me, he never leaves my side,” she added.
Naiya Aqqaq in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, has a baby due in January she was set to deliver at Stanton Territorial Hospital.
She’s familiar with travelling to Yellowknife where she had other babies. The change has created questions for her and she has been told very little, she said. She is trying to get answers about what this means for the baby she already has and the expenses.
“We are looking at each situation for its unique circumstances and trying to accommodate people,” said N.W.T. Minister of Health and Social Services Julie Green on CBC’s The Trailbreaker. She said she is hoping mothers have employer plans or access to other benefits that might augment what they get from the territorial government.
‘Great disruption’ to families
Dr. Michael Bokor, clinic director of Juniper Health in Yellowknife, said he’s “disappointed” in the territory’s move and worries about his clinic’s many patients who are pregnant.
“The initial days after giving birth are really important to a parent and their child, and if you are in an environment that is stressful or anxiety inducing, I don’t think that’s great for you or the parent-infant health outcomes,” he said.
Heather Heinrichs, president of the Midwives Association of N.W.T., said the sudden decision is worrisome for maternal health.
“Leaving your community for birth causes great disruption to the family. People are at a much greater risk of having mental health problems, depression, anxiety, those types of things,” she said.
A spokesperson for the N.W.T. health authority said the situation was largely out of their control due to factors including “the timing of … staff departures, maternity leaves and medical leaves.”
The factors were coupled with national shortages of nurses and challenges recruiting staff to work over the holidays, he said. A union representing government workers at Stanton told CBC more closures were likely.
Green said the health authority was faced with 70 upcoming vacant shifts at the hospital. The move was “necessary in order to be able to provide safe and effective obstetrics care,” she said.
Leading up to the announcement, the health authority exhausted all other staffing options, she said.
Bokor said more should have been done to build a more robust system.
“When we look at really robust health systems, they have other options for care and it seems [here], when there is a nursing shortage, everything else just shuts down,” said Bokor. He feels midwifery should be more valued.