Chilliwack maternity ward to reopen months earlier than expected

Days before a months-long closure was set to begin, health officials have announced the maternity ward at Chilliwack General Hospital will reopen weeks earlier than anticipated.

The ward was expected to be closed for 15 weeks as of Monday due, in part, to an obstetrician staffing issue — but on Friday, Fraser Health announced that closure had been cut down to just two weeks.

A statement said the department will now be reopening on July 9, "thanks to the strong teamwork of Fraser Health and its partners" to solve the staffing issue.

There are usually three obstetricians working at the Chilliwack maternity ward, but even with the new solution, only one will be available 24/7 until July 9. Expectant mothers will be diverted to Abbotsford Regional Hospital, 33 kilometres away, or further, during the closure.

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Mothers diverted from Chilliwack could be diverted again — as far away as Langley, Surrey or Vancouver — if Abbotsford doesn't have room. Those hospitals are between 60 and 100 kilometres away, which has raised concern about the potential for deliveries on the side of the highway.

"We've been told to imagine there's a lock on the maternity ward. If there's an emergency and the baby is crowning, they'll deliver in emergency," said midwife Natasha Oglesby, who owns the Maternity Tree pregnancy care centre in Chilliwack.

The midwife said the Chilliwack maternity ward sees women from all over the eastern Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon. Oglesby, like other local midwives, doesn't have medical privileges outside Chilliwack or Abbotsford.

If her patients leave those cities, she can't follow and the women lose continuity of care.

The statement from Fraser Health said it "appreciates" the impact the closure will have on expectant families. It said a single obstetrician available around the clock "is not sustainable from a patient care and safety perspective."

"All hospital services have diversion plans in place for specialized services such as maternity ... to ensure that patients who need these levels of service always have access to care even if there is intermittent capacity or human resource challenges at one site," the statement read.