Catherine Calling Last remembers breathing through her contractions and hoping she would make it as her husband drove down the highway between Pincher Creek and Lethbridge.
“Sometimes your labor can just go into full swing…and the baby is ready to come out. I was thinking about the worst case scenario,” she recalls.
“It was a bit stressful. I really wanted the baby closer to home.”
Calling Last gave birth earlier this month at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, more than 100 miles from her birthplace.
She is part of a new generation of Pincher Creek maternity patients, who are expected to travel elsewhere to deliver their babies as the number of local caregivers dwindles.
“Rural pregnancy is at risk, both in Alberta and across the country,” said Dr. Jared Van Bussel, one of only four primary care physicians currently providing maternity care in Pincher Creek. Another doctor is on leave and is expected to return next year.
For many years, he is the only doctor in town trained to perform caesarean sections, making him available 24 hours a day, excluding holidays.
The community has lost a number of doctors in recent years, including surgeons and anesthetists, he said.
“For the past two years, every time a delivery came through the door, the answer was, ‘Phew, I don’t think we have the staff for that today,’ he said.
“There was a lot of fear and anxiety about not having the people we needed.”
He wrote one open letterwarned earlier this year that the situation was no longer tenable and that, as the only surgeon there, he could not support labor and delivery after May 31.
With no solution in sight, the doctors stopped routine labor and delivery at their local hospital at the end of May, Van Bussel said.
Maternity patients are transferred to doctors in Lethbridge for care during the final weeks of their pregnancy.
Deliveries are still supported in Pincher Creek in emergencies, he noted, when it is not deemed safe to send them.
“We have to come up with a solution for this, because transport over winter storm roads is not a good option.”
Ambulance transport from one hospital to another can take an hour and a half, he said.
Van Bussel fears that this could lead to patients giving birth en route. He is also concerned that delays could result in more babies ending up in neonatal intensive care.
An important first step, Van Bussel said, is to recruit another surgeon who can perform cesarean sections.
Five deliveries per month
According to Alberta Health Services, there are an average of five deliveries per month in Pincher Creek, including one cesarean delivery.
A spokesman for the health authority said it has nursing cover to support labor and delivery at the local hospital, when doctors are available, and has not reduced staff or resources.
AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said it is standard practice for physicians in rural communities to ensure maternity patients are cared for elsewhere if they cannot be cared for in the city.
“We want to reassure the community that AHS supports quality maternity care across the county and is committed to providing services as close to home as possible,” Williamson said in an emailed statement.
Recruiting is challenging, especially in rural areas, he said, and AHS is working to support these efforts in Pincher Creek.
Williamson added that the health authority is working with local doctors to “understand their practice decisions and future intentions regarding the provision of obstetric care, including both antenatal and childbirth services.”
In a recent press release, the United Nurses of Alberta called for the resumption of labor and delivery services in Pincher Creek, suggesting that AHS should prepare a contingency plan.
“This is not a problem that our members working in the community can solve, and it should be treated with due seriousness by the authorities who are in a position to do something,” Heather Smith, the union’s president, said in the statement. release.
“Our concern is patient safety.”
Meanwhile, Calling Last, who ended up needing a C-section, is relieved to be home.
“In the end, all I wanted was for my baby girl to be healthy and for both of us to be okay.”
But she worries about other mothers-to-be.
“What if they don’t have their own transportation or things could happen that could affect labor and your delivery,” she said.
“We all just want a smooth delivery. That’s all we can hope for.”