Recent obstetric unit closures in hospitals throughout rural Alberta has forced one Bonnyville family to travel to St. Albert to give birth at the Sturgeon Community Hospital.
Sara and Tyler Collins, both teachers in Bonnyville, learned only a month before Sara was due that she wouldn't be able to deliver her baby in the town's hospital. Covenant Health announced on July 15 that the obstetrics unit at the Bonnyville Health Centre would be closed between July 25 and Sept. 7 due to a staffing shortage.
"It was my doctor here in Bonnyville who had to give me the bad news that I would not be able to deliver in town and that I would have to pick my own hospital and pick a new [obstetrician] without any context or experience," Sara said on Aug. 8.
Forced to change their birth plan in a short amount of time, the Collins family said they chose St. Albert solely because it was somewhat accessible from Bonnyville, despite its nearly three-hour driving distance.
"I think that was probably the main factor in our roulette of hospitals that we had to spin," Tyler said.
As of Aug. 10, seven communities are currently without local access to obstetrics due to staff shortages in Alberta Health Services (AHS) facilities: Fort Saskatchewan, Whitecourt, Rimbey, Lac La Biche, Three Hills, St. Paul, and Sundre, which has been without obstetrics services since April 2020.
According to AHS's facilities reductions map, available online, the Fort Saskatchewan obstetrics unit is set to reopen on Aug. 21, while Whitecourt's unit is scheduled to reopen on Sept. 8; Rimbey is scheduled to reopen on Aug. 15; Three Hills is scheduled to reopen on Aug. 30, and St. Paul is scheduled to reopen on Sept. 6.
The obstetrics unit in Lac La Biche does not have a scheduled reopening date.
Covenant Health communications manager Karen Diaper said in an email that Bonnyville is Covenant Health's only obstetrics closure in Alberta.
“I’m technically 38 weeks this week," Sara said Aug. 8, adding that "When I went in last week to my local [obstetrician] — I still could see them for regular appointments — they were really stressing that I should be in St. Albert starting [Aug. 8] because of the dangers of having to deliver without any nursing staff to take care of me.
“I’ve been told many times by my doctor: ‘Please don’t go into labour here because we’re afraid of what will happen.’”
However, the Collins family needed to wait until Friday, Aug. 12, before they were able to travel to St. Albert and begin a hotel stay until Sara's partially-scheduled inducement on Aug. 15.
"They can’t promise an induction, especially because of so many rural people coming into the Sturgeon [Community Hospital]," Sara said.
As the couple also has a three-year-old child, coming to stay in St. Albert for even more than a week wasn't feasible, Sara said. "We don’t have any family in the province, no friends that we can stay with for over two weeks.”
Tyler's mom was able to fly in from Ontario solely to look after the couple's toddler while they're in St. Albert.
The Collins family said they've become almost "numb" to negative rural health-care experiences in Alberta, citing the ongoing ambulance shortage as another stressor.
"I shouldn’t have second-rate health care because I live outside of major urban areas," Tyler said. "People can’t give birth in northeastern Alberta — this shouldn’t be political — people accessing basic health care in a moment in their lives that they’re the most vulnerable and that has the most stress."
'It should not be happening this way'
During an Aug. 10 press conference to address the reduced availability of health-care services in rural Alberta, NDP labour critic and MLA for Edmonton-Millwoods Christina Gray responded to The Gazette's question of what she had to say to families such as the Collins family, and what they're experiencing, by saying, “It should not be happening this way.
"We know that there are thousands of these stories and families, and not everyone is able to weather the financial burden, and not everyone is going to get the health care they need because of the delays and because of the closures going on in our province right now," Gray said. "To those families, I would say that they deserve to have the health care there to support them, when and where they need it.
"Being here today and trying to highlight the crisis that the system is in and making sure that Albertans see what is happening is an important priority for us."
Provincial health minister Jason Copping was unavailable for an interview, however, James Wood, the director of media relations for AHS, provided The Gazette with a statement.
"Patient safety is of utmost importance to us and we apologize for any inconvenience caused," Wood wrote of the ongoing closures in rural AHS facilities. "We only make the decision to pause or limit obstetrics services when absolutely necessary.
“Obstetrics is a high-risk practice that requires a team of experts with very specialized skills [and] we currently have limited obstetrics-trained physicians and/or staff available in some communities," Wood said.
"I hope that down the line that future mothers and fathers have support in the rural areas of this province," Tyler said.
"There’s a lot of us out there in this situation.”