'Moms are put at risk every day': Flin Flon still without birth services, 1 year later

It's been one year since pregnant women in Flin Flon, Man., began leaving their community to give birth, after the province cancelled obstetrics care in the northern Manitoba city.

Province shut down obstetrics care in November 2018, citing staffing issues and concerns for patient safety

Vanessa Whitbread says her gestational diabetes was completely missed by doctors in Flin Flon, Man. Whitbread didn't find out until travelling to Winnipeg to give birth. She calls the entire experience traumatic. (Vanessa Whitbread)

At eight-and-a-half months pregnant, Vanessa Whitbread wasn't expecting to learn her doctors in Flin Flon, Man. had missed a serious medical issue.

"It was traumatic," she said. 

Just a few weeks earlier, Whitbread had boarded a plane to Winnipeg 700 kilometres away with her four-year-old in tow, to meet for the first time the obstetrician who would deliver her baby.

"My doctor asked me, 'How are you managing your gestational diabetes?' I had never been told I had that before. It was a diagnosis that was completely missed in Flin Flon," she said of the condition that can cause problems for mother and baby if not managed.

"Things went downhill after that."

Whitbread is one of approximately 150 new moms in Flin Flon who has had to travel away to give birth, after the province cancelled obstetrics care in the northern Manitoba city one year ago.

The decision has left expectant mothers in Flin Flon stressed and scared about where they'll give birth, how they'll get there, and what will happen if something goes wrong, according to a group rallying to bring the care back.

Health authority cited patient safety for cut

With her gestational diabetes left untreated, doctors in Winnipeg had to induce Whitbread's labour two weeks early. Her husband rushed on the highway to meet her in time for the birth.

"Everything seemed haphazard," she said.

Then, just two days after giving birth, the couple were driving the eight hours back north with their newborn.

"It was really hard. It was harder than actually being a new mom," Whitebread said.

This wasn't at all how the birth of her first child went, she said, back when Flin Flon had its own obstetrician who cared for her through her entire pregnancy.

"It really doesn't feel like the government has put a lot of thought into the decision," she said.

In November, the province of Manitoba temporarily shut down obstetric care in the northern Manitoba city with a population of 5,000.

At the time, the Northern Regional Health Authority said it was because it couldn't staff its hospital with a full time obstetrician-gynecologist, and there were concerns about mothers' safety.

It has never said if or when the position would be reinstated.

Expectant mothers travelling hundreds of kilometres

For the last year, the nearest location a mother from Flin Flon can give birth is a 140 kilometres south in The Pas.

"Our moms are put at risk every day that we do not have obstetrics care here," said Kirsten Fritsch, a mother who is part of a group called "We Want Birth," fighting to bring obstetrics care back to Flin Flon.

"In the weeks leading up to your due date, you'll have to decide where you have family, where you have a connection, or where you can afford to go. Some women hang on in Flin Flon to the end," she said.

While there is some funding to help pay for northern residents who need medical care further south, it doesn't begin to cover the financial burden, let alone the emotional stress, she said.

"Women are leaving a couple weeks before their baby is due to come. But their partners have to remain in the community to work," Fritsch said, adding that some moms are required to make the drive during bad weather and with spotty cellphone reception.

Kirsten Fritsch went into labour with her second child and had to travel the hour and a half to deliver in The Pas. She spent part of her labour in a shopping mall, because she had nowhere else to go. (Provided/Kirsten Fritsch)

Northern mothers in Saskatchewan affected too

It's not only women in Flin Flon who have been affected by the closure, Fritsch said.

Expectant mothers in the Saskatchewan communities of Sandy Bay, Pelican Narrows, and Deschambault Lake also used to travel to Flin Flon for their births. Now they have a significantly more treacherous and long drive to Prince Albert, Sask. when they go into labour, she said.

Manitoba's health minister said a province-wide clinical plan that will be released in the near future will help to "better align and deliver healthcare services, including improvements to obstetric services outside of Winnipeg."

"The suspension of obstetric services in Flin Flon was recommended by doctor and nurse experts, and undertaken to maintain safety," Cameron Friesen said in an emailed statement.

Labouring in shopping malls

For nearly a year before it was closed, Flin Flon's obstetrics department was operating with temporary obstetricians after the city's permanent full-time obstetrician left.

In Fritsch's case, she went into labour in January 2018, and was told there was no doctor in the city at the time who could deliver her baby.

After making 1½ drive in the winter weather to The Pas, she was told by hospital staff there she wasn't far along enough in her labour to be admitted.

So she and her husband ended up in The Pas' mall.

"I laboured in a mall because we couldn't be at the hospital, and we couldn't turn around and go home," she said.

Another Flin Flon mom, Noelle Drimmie, counts herself lucky: her baby was born 11 weeks premature, just months before the service was cut, meaning she was able to get the care of a Flin Flon obstetrician when she went into labour months early.

She worries about future families who live in the city.

"If we can't offer them a basic services for child and family health, then that's a hard sell."

Most importantly, she worries about what will happen to others who are pregnant now.

"Does a mother or a baby need to die before something snaps in the priorities of getting the healthcare up here that we need?" she said.

Noelle Drimmie with her daughter Daisy, who was born 11 weeks premature. Drimmie was pregnant in Flin Flon, Man., before the obstetrics program was eliminated. She says she tries not to think about what would have happened if the obstetrician wasn't in her home community. (Noelle Drimmie)


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter currently working for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.


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