Doctor shortage causes Fort Nelson pregnancy problems

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Being pregnant and having to drive 380 kilometres to give birth is not an ideal situation, but for many Fort Nelson expectant mothers, it is a reality.

Northern Health officials say that since 2007, 119 of the 252 births by Fort Nelson residents occurred outside the regional municipality. The town has a total of three doctors, two of which have surgical and anesthetic skills. When one is out of town, many pregnant women have to make the trip to Fort St. John, other cities or even other provinces to give birth.

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The problem is a recurring one for Fort Nelson residents since both qualified specialists may be unavailable for up to six months of the year, says Jaylene Arnold, Fort Nelson’s economic development and tourism officer. Arnold says one specialist always has to be available for non pregnancy-related emergencies. The lack of specialists leaves expectant mothers to fend for themselves and she knows of women that have gone as far away as Saskatchewan to stay with family members before giving birth.

She does say that health nurses in the town are very good at ensuring most pregnant women know when there might be a service disruption, but she says there have been times when women are not informed.

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A highway birth could have been a very real possibility for Fort Nelson resident Diana Peddle if she had not left town before her due date. In an interview with the CBC, Peddle says she stayed in a Fort St. John hotel room for several weeks while waiting for her contractions to begin. When her contractions started, she says she “delivered her baby in 23 minutes” and if she had gone into labour in Fort Nelson she probably would have ended up giving birth on the highway.

Travel and accommodation expenses are very real problems for women who have to leave the town to give birth, says Christine Morey, a spokesperson for Northern Health. Currently, health care expenses only apply if a mother is in the hospital, not if she has to stay in a hotel.

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Arnold says that the town’s council has been considering various options for helping to cover expenses if women cannot give birth in Fort Nelson, but so far the Town has only approved reimbursement of one cost.

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Arnold says that the Town is focusing more on doctor recruitment than covering accommodation or travel costs for expectant mothers. However, she says recruitment of qualified specialists to Fort Nelson has been an ongoing problem for several years and is not because of the pay. The Town offers free housing for a year, along with a vehicle and other financial incentives, to any new doctor.

Despite all the problems, both Arnold and Morey agree that preparation is key and recommend all pregnant women keep in touch with doctors and nurses throughout their pregnancy.

Northern Health has already issued an advisory that Fort Nelson General Hospital will not be able to provide maternity services between June 25 and Aug.19. As well, Arnold says there will be an additional disruption between Feb. 19 and 26.

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