‘I’m overwhelmed’: Expectant mothers in N.W.T., western Nunavut to be sent to Edmonton for births

Julie-Ann Beauprie of Yellowknife is nine short weeks away from her January 2022 due date.

But she won’t be able to have her second baby close to home with her familial supports around her in Yellowknife.

Those plans were dashed on Monday as news broke that expectant mothers in the Northwest Territories and Western Nunavut with due dates from Dec. 10 until Feb. 21, will have to travel to Edmonton to deliver their babies.

The N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority cited “staffing challenges” as responsible for reducing Stanton Territorial Hospital’s ability to offer safe birthing services.

“My doctor called and I was extremely shocked like ‘how long have you guys known this?’ If you’ve known this a while then why didn’t you bring it to the attention of finding more people to hire,” Beauprie said.

The young family will need to make tough decisions of who will escort Julie-Ann for the birth. The father may need to stay behind and work to pay the bills.

Territorially-backed medical travel allowance for families covers $50 for a hotel room and just $18 per day for meals.

“I have only been to Edmonton to the airport and to the mall, and for me to go down there and for me to go there by myself I’ll be lost,” she said.

Beauprie said she has the option to travel to London, Ont., to be with her parents for the birth but only her flight would be paid for. She would need to isolate for two weeks upon returning to the north should she bring her toddler with her.

Regardless of whether she goes to London or Edmonton, she’ll likely be away from the N.W.T. weeks before her delivery date and would need to travel before being 37 weeks pregnant, the recommended limit for travel for expectant mothers.

“I’m overwhelmed at the whole situation. I’m worried about going out of town and having to leave my daughter here,” Beauprie said.

N.W.T. health authority blames staffing shortages

According to Georgina Veldhorst, chief operating officer at the Stanton Territorial Hospital, said earlier this fall the obstetrics unit hovered around four staff members earlier this fall, which was already high, but when two additional resignations came it ultimately led to the decision to send mothers down south.

“When we put a job posting or competition up we are having a lower response rate. It is harder for us to recruit casual nurses which they have always relied on casual nurses in specialty areas,” Veldhorst said.

The new Stanton Territorial Hospital opened in 2019. It’s the only hospital in Yellowknife, but despite the new facility, there’s been a slew of staffing issues.

As far back as May 2021 nurses at Stanton have vocalized their frustrations over what they consider to be unfair policies and mistreatment which are negatively impacting morale and staff retention.

According to a letter penned by nurses and forwarded to N.W.T. MLA’s and first reported by Cabin Radio, nurses are burnt out due to staff shortages, get less time off, work longer hours, are required to cover more shifts and take on additional duties.

The N.W.T. Health and Social Services authority told APTN News, it’s addressing frustrations and workplace issues while working on recruitment.

“Over the last few months we have maintained all efforts on recruiting and in October when there was an early indication we might be in this situation we reached out to agencies to support us,” Veldhorst said.

Midwifery positions went unfilled despite birthing crisis

Heather Heindrichs, president of the N.W.T. Midwives Association and practicing midwife for over a decade told APTN that Stanton hadn’t done enough to recruit midwives to support expectant mothers.

She had hoped the GNWT’s March 2021 announcement to allocate an extra $600,000 to support midwifery services would have resulted in hires, but that wasn’t the case.

“We know that four full-time midwife positions were not posted in Yellowknife two were posted just last week. We don’t know why recruitment wasn’t started earlier,” Heinrichs said.

The funding was geared towards advancing the territorial midwifery program into its second phase adding four midwives in Yellowknife, one in Hay River and one in Fort Smith.

Heinrichs said the one-on-one care those midwives could have provided to patients and the support to nurses in the delivery room would have strengthened the capacity at Stanton.

“In the face of issues like staffing shortages we might not have to send people out of the territory,” she said. “We don’t know how that would have looked but we do know four full-time midwives could go a long way to mitigate the impact of staffing shortages on the obstetrics unit.”

The ripple effect

Outside of Yellowknife, expectant mothers hoping to birth in the Inuvik hospital and midwifery supports in Hay River and Fort Smith will continue.

Heinrichs said midwives across the territory are anticipating a surge of community births and are figuring out ways to ensure they can accommodate.

“In Hay River, since the midwifery program started in 2015, there’s been anywhere from eight to 20 births in the community. It sounds like they might be anticipating double-digit births in a few months and maybe more with the reduction of services in Yellowknife,” Heinrichs said.

APTN asked the N.W.T. health authority about the timeline for posting the four midwifery positions at Stanton and whether those positions if filled would have helped keep mothers in the north.

“Lots of things have to be put in place to launch a new program,” Veldhorst said. “These things take time.”

In the meantime, the N.W.T. noted according to their pre-natal care files 90 plus families will be affected by the suspension of services at Stanton.

Leaving the community to birth is nothing new for Nunavummuit

Casey Adlem, president of Larga Kitmeot, an Inuit medical boarding home in Yellowknife said each month they receive at least 10 to 12 prenatal patients along with their escorts.

“People from Nunavut have had to do it forever, actually leave their territory to receive services so it will be interesting to see how people of the N.W.T. handle that sort of system,” Adlem said.

She noted that changes to birth plans will have an impact on mental health and family relationships.

“It’s not good for anyone to go that far to have a baby because you have children at home you are worried about and because they can’t travel after a certain date they can expect to be away from their families for a long time,” she said.

While patients from western Nunavut will be sent to Larga Edmonton for births, Adlem said the boarding home already faces capacity issues and will have to increase staff.

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