A two-week closure of the maternity ward is two weeks too long, says Chilliwack’s mayor.
The community responded swiftly upon learning that the Chilliwack General Hospital’s maternity ward could be closed for up to 13 weeks beginning June 24, with politicians, midwives, and expectant mothers all weighing in on the matter. On June 20, Fraser Health Authority announced via a press release that the closure has been slimmed down to just two weeks.
But the release left out what has changed, and that’s not sitting well with Mayor Ken Popove.
“Their press release does not say how they will accomplish this shorter timeline and does not mention the addition of an obstetrician in Chilliwack,” he says. “This is just a Band-Aid fix and while we’re glad they were able to reduce the diversion to two weeks, it is two weeks too many for families in Chilliwack and the Eastern Fraser Valley that will need to make that long drive during a stressful time.”
The closure is due to an unexpected shortage of on-call obstetricians. Chilliwack currently only has three such doctors, and they are a requirement for a maternity ward to function, in case of emergencies.
They have recently posted an advertisement for a fourth doctor, but that wouldn’t explain what’s changed to reduce CGH’s closure time. During the two-week closure, pregnant women will be diverted to Abbotsford Regional Hospital as is procedure. The maternity ward is expected to be fully functioning again by July 9.
The whole issue of closure and diversion has highlighted the dire need for better health care coverage in Chilliwack and the surrounding area, says Popove.
“Ultimately, Fraser Health needs to attract more doctors, including obstetricians, so that a doctor shortage doesn’t threaten to close an entire unit in our hospital again,” he adds.
Doctors acknowledge stress
Dr. Jennifer Wilson, CGH’s medical director, says that the decision for the diversion was “not taken lightly.”
“We really appreciate how stressful this is for women,” she told The Progress on Friday, especially those without reliable transportation or who live even further than Chilliwack.
“The diversion was triggered by an unexpected health issue one of our obstetricians, and it was unclear how soon or when he would be back. We needed to potentially have a contingent plan,” she says.
Wilson said they planned for three months for a worst-case scenario, but that the doctor has recovered very well and expects to be back by early July. She said there have been talks about a fourth doctor coming into the fold for a while now.
“It’s been three (doctors) for a long time, and they do fantastic work, they go above and beyond,” she says. But there has been a contingency plan in place for situations like these, just as there are for other units and departments in Chilliwack’s health system, she explains.
“It happens with intensive care units,” she says. “Most of the time it’s a capacity issue rather than a manpower issue, but when there is a shortage of specialized staff there is a contigency plan in place.”
Wilson said they deliver up to 800 babies a year at CGH, and growing, with an average of one to two deliveries a day. But other maternity patients may require observation or non-stress tests that are unique to the maternity nurses’ skills and training.
So, for the two weeks, the diversion will remain in place.
“I totally appreciate the mayors in the community saying ‘wait a minute, this isn’t right,'” she says. “But really it is a decision coming from safety, and we are doing our best to anticipate the needs for the women in the community.”
MLAs speak up
And then on June 24, the first day of the two-week diversion, the BC Liberal MLAs John Martin and Laurie Throness publicly called on Fraser Health to upgrade the maternity ward itself.
“The short-term closure of our maternity ward is just a symptom of a larger problem,” said Martin, MLA for Chilliwack. “We need to look at the big picture and address the underlying issue concerning our facilities so that we can avoid local families being placed in this situation in the future.”
In a press release from the BC Liberal Caucus, they point out that “even when Chilliwack Hospital’s maternity ward is fully operational, as many as 900 Chilliwack families choose to travel to Abbotsford each year to take advantage of superior facilities.”
That makes it it difficult to attract obstetricians to Chilliwack, they say, which typically means a pay cut for relocating doctors. The upgrades would allow mothers to deliver closer to home.
They added that upgraded healthcare facilities are becoming increasingly necessary for safety reasons.
“Our community is growing fast and that means more young families,” said Throness, MLA for Chilliwack-Kent. “We need an upgraded ward to serve us now and into the future.”
Throness says the $10 million estimated cost of an upgraded maternity ward is relatively minor when compared to recent expenditures in other communities, such as $500 million for St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, $363 million for North Island Hospital in Comox, and $66 million for Lion’s Gate Hospital in Vancouver.
Local representatives, including Harrison Hot Springs Mayor Leo Facio, Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger, and Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove, have also voiced their concerns.
“Chilliwack General Hospital is a regional hospital that serves not only our rapidly growing municipality, but also the rest of the eastern Fraser Valley,” says Popove. “Upgrades to the maternity ward would have a far-reaching positive impact on expectant mothers from Chilliwack to Boston Bar.”
“We don’t want to take anything away from Abbotsford,” adds Throness. “We just want equivalent facilities so that local moms can feel comfortable giving birth near their own home.”