Scrambling to make backup plans for their backup plans wasn’t the way Alex Nixon and his wife Megan Loxterkamp had expected to spend the final few days before the arrival of their first child, a baby girl.
But that’s exactly what the White Rock couple are doing, following an announcement Friday by Fraser Health that Peace Arch Hospital’s maternity ward will be closed for business for nearly two weeks, starting July 8 – the day before their daughter is due – as a result of a “temporary gap in pediatrician coverage.”
A July 2 news release asks “pregnant individuals requiring labour and delivery support to not proceed to the hospital during the period of July 8th to July 19th,” but instead, to head for Langley Memorial Hospital.
Fraser Health officials said this week that the step is “the best option we have right now.”
“Obviously, it’s not ideal for families, but we want healthy babies and we want safe deliveries, so that’s the priority,” said Dr. Michael Smith, the health authority’s regional medical director of child and youth programs.
Smith explained the gap – the longest maternity-diversion stretch at PAH so far this year – is a product of PAH, due to its size, not having a pediatric unit, and the difficulties that creates in attracting pediatricians to work there.
“Peace Arch suffers, really, by being a very small hospital. It’s a challenge to recruit pediatricians to work where… they don’t have the sort of broad professional work that many other hospitals have,” Smith said Monday (July 5). “Most pediatricians like to be busy and they do newborn work, but they also like to do, as we’re all trained to do, pediatric work.
“To recruit pediatricians just to do maternity/newborn care is challenging.”
Smith said the temporary diversions have been happening “quite regularly,” but that this month, in particular, “has been really hard.”
A “handful” of scheduled routine elective C-sections are not expected to be affected by the diversion, he noted.
For Nixon – who is head of White Rock BIA, but spoke to PAN from a personal perspective – and Loxterkamp, the recruitment explanation brought little comfort. The diversion news, arriving at the tail-end of navigating a high-risk pregnancy during a pandemic, has added a level of concern that shouldn’t be necessary, he said.
“Spending 45 minutes in a car to Langley while (Megan)’s in labour is not ideal. I don’t want her to give birth on the side of the road,” he said Monday.
Initially, plotting the quickest route to Langley Memorial had been their backup plan, he noted. Now, they’re mapping out the fastest way to a number of the Lower Mainland’s other maternity hospitals, just in case.
“And if Langley’s full, do we get diverted to Burnaby, or Surrey Memorial, or where do we drive around to next? I understand that Peace Arch had a several-million-dollar renovation a few years back and they’ve a really wonderful facility. It seems silly that in a community that has a burgeoning population with younger parents and younger families, that we wouldn’t be using this facility.”
The Peace Arch maternity ward received a $5.3 million upgrade in 2010, bringing what one doctor described at the time as “a whole new standard of maternity care to our community.” The upgrade included eight new private birthing suites, and was one of five priority initiatives supported by Peace Arch Hospital Foundation’s Partners in Caring Campaign. Work on the fifth initiative, the ER expansion, is ongoing.
The issue of having to divert maternity and pediatric patients goes back even further. In 2003, Peace Arch News reported that patients were being diverted as a result of PAH not having a contract for on-call pediatric services; an issue that threatened maternity services at the hospital. That issue was resolved temporarily with funding from Peace Arch Hospital Foundation, however, the hospital’s chief pediatrician at the time noted the pediatric-maternity issue “is always going to be a grumbly situation.”
Smith said the health authority has been working with the Ministry of Health and Doctors of B.C. over the past six to 12 months to develop a “broader professional plan” to try and attract more pediatricians to Peace Arch. At the moment, the hospital has three dedicated pediatricians, and sometimes a fourth is available.
Together they “try and keep these gaps in coverage to a minimum,” Smith said. The upcoming gap is due in part to vacation schedules, as well as the physicians “working a lot more than they should be,” he said. He confirmed that more diversions are expected in August.
Expectant patients are not the only ones concerned by the diversions.
Jennie Lucow, a partner at Semiahmoo Midwives, said they present “pretty significant safety concerns,” as issues can happen and change quickly with maternity patients.
She said her own diversion experience came last year, when she went into premature labour with her second child. En route to Peace Arch from South Delta, she said being told to continue on to Langley instead “was terrifying for me.”
Fortunately, she was able to be accommodated at PAH and her now-10-month-old son was born without complications.
Lucow doesn’t believe the diversion situation is due to lack of care or diligence, and said Fraser Health is doing a good job of trying to mitigate risks and reduce safety concerns.
It’s just that it’s “reaching a crisis,” she said.
She said of 212 deliveries by Semiahmoo Midwives last year, 40 patients were diverted.
Lucow said Semiahmoo Midwives is encouraging those who are concerned to make their concerns known to their local officials.
For Nixon, the focus now is on how quickly they’ll be able to get to Langley when the time comes for Loxterkamp to deliver.
“It’s very unfortunate, but it is what it is,” he said.
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