Nova Scotia

What an anesthesiologist shortage means for pregnant women in Yarmouth

A letter being given out to prenatal clinic patients has some pregnant women in Yarmouth, N.S., worried about what they're going to do when they're due.

'It's very concerning. The lack of doctors is just spiralling out of control here,' says local pregnant woman

The Yarmouth Regional Hospital only has one anesthesiologist at the moment. It previously had four. (Robert Short/CBC)

Some pregnant women in Yarmouth, N.S., say they're shocked after being informed they may have to take a trip hours out of town to deliver their babies.

Mekala Wood, 23, said she was "flustered" after being handed a letter from the Nova Scotia Health Authority during a prenatal clinic appointment on Wednesday. It said Yarmouth's anesthesiologist shortage means the local hospital might not be able to deliver babies over the next few months.

This means women may have to travel to the Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, the South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater or the IWK Health Centre in Halifax to deliver.

"It's kind of definitely not a plan that I wanted," said Wood, who is 18 weeks pregnant with her third child.

The hospital in Bridgewater — a two-hour drive — would be the closest option for women in Yarmouth.

"For my second child, I was only actually in hard labour for 45 minutes and I barely made it to the hospital and I only live five minutes from the hospital right now," she said.

"So, I couldn't imagine having to drive for hours in labour."

Call hospital first, letter says

The letter instructs prenatal clinic patients to call the women and children's health unit before going to the hospital to see if they will have to be redirected to another hospital.

It said the hospital will have anesthesiologist coverage for "emergency circumstances" until mid-May and is working to secure coverage for the following months. It also noted that patients can still go to the hospital for prenatal clinic appointments, obstetrical consultations, ultrasounds and labour room assessments.

Health authority spokesperson Carla Adams later said that Yarmouth Regional Hospital will now have full anesthesia coverage until the end of May. She said the hospital currently has one full-time anesthesiologist being supported by temporary help.

The hospital is supposed to have four full-time anesthesiologists, but one doctor left last fall and two more at the end of March. Most elective surgeries are on hold, though Adams said there has been some days where there's enough coverage to perform some elective procedures. 

Dr. Cheryl Pugh, the medical executive director co-lead for the health authority's western zone, said the hospital needs to have anesthesiologists on hand when delivering babies to assist with epidurals and C-sections.

This letter from the Nova Scotia Health Authority was handed out Wednesday. (Kells Muize/Facebook)

Pugh said the letters are intended as a way to give people time to come up with a plan in case they can't deliver their baby in Yarmouth.

"What I'd like to say first is that this is a 'What if' situation. This is not a 'We do not have' situation," she said, noting that extra short-term help has been brought in to provide 24/7 coverage.

Pugh said the province is taking steps to address the shortage through ongoing recruitment efforts, programs for medical school graduates and short-term help to fill the gaps.

New anesthesiologist expected in May

She also said an anesthesiologist from out of the country has been recruited and is expected to begin in May.

"We understand the frustration that people are feeling and absolutely, we want to ensure that people are aware that the stability of services is a high priority for the health authority," she said.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority has also had ongoing conversations with EHS about the potential of transporting patients who need to go out of town for care, added Pugh.

'Spiralling out of control'

Another pregnant Yarmouth woman said she moved to Nova Scotia from Ontario two years ago with the hopes of growing her family, but said she's now second-guessing that decision.

"It's very concerning. The lack of doctors is just spiralling out of control here," said Brianne Gowman, who's 29 weeks pregnant with her third child.

"I hope the politicians are going to sit up and take notice that something needs to be done … we need to find some way to attract them to these communities or these communities are going to fall apart."

Gowman said she hopes she'll be able to deliver in Yarmouth, but she and her husband are already thinking of what they'll do if they can't.

"Right now our plan is to just call the hospital, and if there's no room, jump in the car and go," said Gowman. "What else can you really do?"

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