Three weeks after the birth of her daughter Octavia, Bella Coola mom Shaiyena Currie, 23, is still recovering from the trauma of spending 14 days in a tent during the final stretch of her pregnancy.
Since 2008, when Vancouver Coastal Health cut maternity services at Bella Coola General Hospital, pregnant women in the community must travel to Williams Lake a month before their due date.
Pregnant women who travel for their deliveries in the VCH region are eligible for some discounts on ferries and airfares, and a medical discount of about 30 per cent at select hotels, but meals, accommodation, mileage, fuel and local transportation expenses are not included in the provincial Travel Assistance Program.
Currie estimates that the total cost to her and her family for the birth was around $10,000, in part because her sister had to take an unpaid leave from her job to accompany Currie.
“I was worried for my safety. I stayed up all night tossing and turning because of the fear that anybody could just walk into my tent,” said Currie who pitched her tent at the Stampede Campground, not far from Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake.
When a busy horse riding competition started on the stampede grounds, Currie moved to the Stampeder Motel where the slightly discounted medical rate came to $90 a night, plus taxes and fees. The final insult was that she had to give birth alone, because her sister had to watch her son at the hospital while she was delivering. Her mother had planned to be there, but couldn’t make the six-hour drive in time.
Currie calls the whole situation “terrifying and traumatic,” and says people need to know the health and safety risks pregnant women face when travelling to give birth.
Katy Best is a Bella Coola Grade 5 teacher who is expecting her first child will moving back in with her mother in Richmond next week while she awaits her birth.
In a letter to health authorities advocating for change, Best wrote on Aug. 29, “The disruptions to these mothers’ lives are countless, including having to leave children behind or pull them out of school, feeling isolated from their communities and partners at a very vulnerable time, and missing out on nesting at home during their final month of pregnancy.”
Best said she was required to sign a waver stating that she understood childbirth was “inherently dangerous,” and that she would be required to leave the community to give birth.
“If leaving the community is deemed a medical necessity by health authorities, why aren’t the costs covered?”
“This is an equity issue,” says Best, who points out that pregnancy is not a “rare or unforeseeable condition.”
“Based on the fact that you give birth, you have to take on this enormous financial and emotional hardship.”
Best believes that Vancouver Coastal Health saved money by shutting down Bella Coola General’s maternity program, and “off-loaded those costs onto women and families.”
Adrian Dix, Minister of Health told Postmedia in an email, “Improving travel assistance supports, especially for expectant mothers and families, is an issue that I am looking into with the input of Ministry of Health staff and health authorities.”
Vancouver Coastal Health provided Postmedia with a written statement which read in part, “Vancouver Coastal Health recognizes the difficulties in providing health services to residents of remote and rural communities. This issue is not unique to British Columbia, or even to Canada for that matter. Bella Coola Hospital does not have full maternity service.”
A 2013 study published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information said 40 per cent of women living in rural Canada drive more than an hour to give birth; 17 per cent drive more than two hours.
A 2008 report from the Centre for Rural Health Research on Maternity Care in Bella Coola stated that cuts to rural maternity services tend to be driven by a trend toward centralization of health services and challenges in attracting nurse, general practitioner surgeons and specialists and lack of access to specialized services such as “access to epidural anesthesia, labour augmentation, or caesarean section backup.”
It’s not good enough for Currie.
“I don’t want another woman to have to sleep in a tent, or worse. Something needs to be arranged so mothers are safe and can give birth in their communities.”
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