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Yellowknife mother describes 'traumatic experience' of having to travel to Alberta to give birth

"This will be our last baby," says Shene Catholique-Valpy, a mother of four living in Yellowknife and one of 75 N.W.T. mothers sent to Alberta to give birth. "It was a traumatic experience, and I can't imagine having to do it again." 

Birthing services resume in Yellowknife after dozens of people travelled south to give birth

'This will be our last baby,' says Shene Catholique-Valpy, a mother of four living in Yellowknife and one of 75 N.W.T. mothers sent to Alberta to give birth. 'It was a traumatic experience, and I can't imagine having to do it again.' (Submitted by Shene Catholique-Valpy)

Shene Catholique-Valpy was nearly seven months pregnant when she learned she wasn't going to be able to deliver her fourth baby at Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital. 

In November, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority announced it would temporarily suspend most services at its obstetrics unit from Dec. 10 to Feb. 21 due to a shortage of staff, and that almost everyone would be transferred to Edmonton to give birth. 

The decision was surprising and disappointing for Catholique-Valpy, who lives in Yellowknife. Though pregnant people in smaller N.W.T. communities often travel to give birth, those in Yellowknife traditionally have not had to leave the city to deliver their babies. 

"This is a major hospital where people come here to give birth," she said. "You never think that living here, we would be forced to be displaced down in Alberta or anywhere else to give birth because we didn't have enough resources here at our own hospital." 

Birthing services have now resumed at Stanton for all N.W.T. residents, the health authority said Tuesday. Nunavut residents who would normally travel to Yellowknife to deliver babies will continue to have to travel to Alberta for now, though services will resume for this group "as soon as possible."

After hearing that announcement, Catholique-Valpy said it's sad Nunavut residents will still need to go elsewhere to give birth. She was one of dozens of people who had their birthing plans upended by the closure.

Catholique-Valpy’s three older children missed four weeks of school to travel for the birth of their brother. Náʔël, 5, Kairo, 9, Kenzo, 3 weeks, and Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ, 8, are pictured here in the Edmonton airport ready to return home to Yellowknife on Feb. 7. (Submitted by Shene Catholique-Valpy)

David Maguire, the health authority's manager of communications, told CBC a total of 75 N.W.T. residents had travelled to Alberta to deliver during the suspension.

Catholique-Valpy said she is no longer considering having more children.

"This will be our last baby. It was a traumatic experience, and I can't imagine having to do it again." 

Getting there brought its own challenges

Catholique-Valpy said flights to Edmonton for herself and her partner were covered. As compensation for the displacement, she said she and her husband each received $50 toward accommodations, as well as an $18 per diem for meals. They were still left to pay for plane tickets for their three young children. 

"The amount of money that they give you for accommodations, for per diems, and to eat is not even close to living a proper life while you are trying to bring in another life," Catholique-Valpy said. 

In comparison, government workers have 100 per cent of their accommodation costs covered (when they stay in hotels) and get just under $140 per day for food and incidental costs. 

Catholique-Valpy’s children Kairo, 9, Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ, 8, and Náʔël, 5, hold their new baby brother Kenzo. (Submitted by Shene Catholique-Valpy)

Catholique-Valpy was grateful to receive an unspecified amount of additional financial support from the Northern Birthwork Collective, which made funding available for families being sent to Alberta to give birth.

"I couldn't have imagined it if we didn't have that support," she said.

Since the health authority permitted people to choose a birth site outside the arranged Edmonton services, Catholique-Valpy ultimately decided to have her child in Red Deer, Alta., so she could live with her best friend and her family in Blackfalds, about 15 minutes away from the hospital. That also meant she had to find a healthcare provider on her own.

She and her family flew from Yellowknife to Edmonton on Jan. 10. The stress of travelling during the final weeks of pregnancy with three young children during a pandemic was compounded by the uncertainties surrounding the displacement. 

"Because we didn't know how long we were going for, that was hard to wrap [our] head around," she said. "Knowing that we'd come back with one more child is just kind of stressful to think of how it was going to be, travelling back home with a newborn."

Complications during and after birth 

Despite having delivered three babies naturally and without complications, Catholique-Valpy went into pre-term labour one week after arriving in Alberta. Her baby was breech, meaning it hadn't turned to a head-first position, so she had an emergency C-section on Jan. 18 to deliver her fourth child. 

"I fully believe that if I was at home and I wasn't stressed out and I didn't have to travel, I wouldn't have gone through pre-term labour and I wouldn't have had the emergency C-section," she said. 

Catholique-Valpy holds her newborn son, Kenzo. (Submitted by Shene Catholique-Valpy)

Three days after getting back from the hospital, her best friend's daughter contracted COVID-19 and it quickly spread through the household. Catholique-Valpy had to isolate with her newborn for three weeks, away from her partner and other three children.

She and her family were finally able to return to Yellowknife on Feb. 7. 

Even though her newborn baby is now happy and healthy, she said she is disappointed he now carries an Alberta birth certificate. 

"For me, it's a sense of identity," said Catholique-Valpy.

"It shows where you're from and where you're born and raised. And Alberta is not our home, so it was always really important for us to have N.W.T. birth certificates." 

Catholique-Valpy says her experience was unnecessary and could have been avoided — she thinks there should be a greater emphasis on hiring more nurses at Stanton.

"It's just unfortunate that they had to send mothers away, especially during a pandemic. I don't think that was the smartest thing to do, and the best choice," she said. 

"There are a lot of scared moms out there and a lot of moms travelling, not just from Yellowknife, but from northern communities who have to leave their families, and they're already having to travel so far from their community, and their home, and their kids. And I am hoping that the policy changes for medical travel because the medical travel policy is a joke."

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