British Columbia

No maternity ward, unreliable medevac, dangerous roads: why doctors tell pregnant women to leave Fort Nelson

Thousands of dollars, hundreds of kilometres, weeks away from home: the high cost of pregnancy in Fort Nelson, B.C.

Without a maternity ward, families in this northern B.C. town are told to travel nearly 400 km to give birth

Seanah Roper will be staying with family in Grande Prairie, Alta. in the weeks before her due date, but is worried about other expectant mothers in Fort Nelson, B.C., including low-income clients she works with at the Fort Nelson Community Literacy Society. (Kimberly Normandeau)

When Seanah Roper found out she was pregnant with her first child, she was excited.

"I went in and they did the prenatal and they weighed me and took my blood pressure and all those things," she said.

Then came the reminder of where she lives.

"They made me sign a paper that says I can't have my baby here."

It takes approximately four hours to drive between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson under good conditions. During winter months the trip becomes more treacherous. (Google Maps)

For over a decade, pregnant women in Fort Nelson, B.C. have been advised by Northern Health and the local medical clinic to leave town at least a month before their due date because of a lack of resources to properly care for them.

"Due to staffing issues we are unable to conduct safe obstetric care in Fort Nelson," reads a form given to pregnant women in the community.

The hospital's maternity ward was shut down in 2012, but even before then care was frequently suspended when staff were unavailable to provide emergency caesarean sections or other services.

That means women like Roper have to travel at least 380 kilometres to Fort St. John for care, taking time away from work and family and racking up thousands of dollars in hotel bills while they wait to go into labour.

Expectant mothers in Fort Nelson, B.C. are told leave town at least one month in advance of their due date. Without supports in place, this can mean thousands of dollars in hotel bills and travel costs. (Seanah Roper)

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While Roper plans to stay with family in Grande Prairie, Alta., she realizes not everyone has that option.

"We have pretty vulnerable families facing some pretty serious challenges," she explained, adding that her role as executive director of the Fort Nelson Community Literacy Society puts her in contact with people struggling financially during the region's economic downturn.

 "It's a really difficult situation for a lot of people." 

'It just seems like it's fallen on deaf ears'

It cost Mike Payne and his wife nearly $10,000 to pay for food and a hotel room in the weeks leading up to the birth of their son in 2012.

The expense almost completely wiped out their savings, so during their second pregnancy Payne invested in an RV to live in while staying in Fort St. John.

"At least I have something to show for my money," he said.

Fort Nelson's population fluctuates between 3,000 and 5,000 depending on the health of the local economy. For the past few years it has been struggling through a downturn in natural gas commodity prices. (Fort Nelson Chamber of Commerce)

Payne said he's surprised no progress seems to have been made on restoring maternity services to his community.

"It's almost like they're not doing anything better to change it," he said.

While there are other communities without maternity services, the remoteness of Fort Nelson exacerbates its challenges.

According to ICBC data obtained by Global News in 2015, the drive between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson is one of the deadliest stretches of highway in the province.

Emergency medevac services are also "unreliable," according to the emergency clinic form, a problem also highlighted by B.C.'s Forest Safety Ombudsman and local government officials.

City Coun. Todd Osbourne said the slow pace of movement on the file has been frustrating him, as well.

"My daughter, last December, had to move out of Fort Nelson for three months [during a pregnancy]," he said. 

"We had to rent an apartment ... it turned into a pretty costly venture on our end."

Maternity care is not the only health-related issue in Fort Nelson. In 2016, an Albertan tourist filed a complaint when it took more than 24 hours for her traveling companion to receive proper care for a stroke. (Tammy Kaleta)

Osbourne said he feels Fort Nelson isn't being treated as a priority by Northern Health or the province.

"It just seems like it's fallen on deaf ears," he said.

While Northern Health provides a subsidized bus service, trips between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson only occur once a week and the cost of accommodation is completely in the hands of patients.

We don't have equitable health care- Seanah  Roper

Angela De Smit, CEO of Northern Health's northeast operations, said a community health plan for Fort Nelson is being developed, and pointed to a 2015 meeting Northern Health facilitated between leaders in northeast B.C. and on Haida Gwaii to discuss providing maternity care for remote communities.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health did not provide comment by deadline.

Roper said she and her partner are committed to living in Fort Nelson, but they worry that as long as it's not possible to have a baby there, others will be unwilling or unable to stay.

"We don't have equitable health care," she said. 

"It's very disappointing."


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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.