Gander-area residents rally to urge health minister to keep promise on obstetrics units

Residents of Gander and the surrounding area rallied in the community Tuesday to stress the importance of an obstetrics unit in both Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor.  (Town of Gander/Twitter - image credit)
Residents of Gander and the surrounding area rallied in the community Tuesday to stress the importance of an obstetrics unit in both Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor. (Town of Gander/Twitter - image credit)
Town of Gander/Twitter
Town of Gander/Twitter

Residents of Gander and the surrounding area want to make sure Health Minister Tom Osborne's promise to keep obstetrics units open in the community and Grand Falls-Windsor wasn't just empty words — and they took to the streets Tuesday to show it.

About 100 people rallied in front of the James Paton Memorial Hospital on Tuesday to stress the importance of a unit in both communities. The unit in Gander has struggled to remain open due to staff shortages, with pregnant women being told to seek assistance in Grand Falls-Windsor, nearly 100 kilometres away.

In February, Osborne committed to keeping obstetrical units in both towns, saying he believes there is a need for two sites based on the number of births in both communities.

"We wanted to make sure that what Minister Osborne is telling us is not going to be empty promises, that it's going to lead to a prosperous unit in obstetrics here, and that mothers are going to be able to deliver their babies safe and sound here again" Samantha Abbott, leader of the Facebook group Citizens Health Action Group, which organized the rally, said Tuesday.

Osborne has said recruitment will be key in keeping the units open. Only two midwives are working in the region, down from four in 2019, when the provincial government launched a midwifery pilot project in Gander, with the expectation of opening sites elsewhere in the province.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

Heather Picco of Gander, whose first child is due in May, hopes the Gander unit will be available for her birth and that there will be enough midwives available to staff it — but she's not optimistic.

"I'm hopeful it will be, but do I expect it to be? No," she said.

"I think it's very important to have one here and one in Grand Falls, so that people from the whole area … can get to Gander a lot easier than going all the way to Grand Falls. For some of them, depending on the weather, that could be a three-hour drive. Like just as well to drive to St. John's."

Diversions causing challenges, says head midwife

The diversion from Gander to Grand Falls-Windsor has been a challenge for midwives in the region, according to Brianna Thompson, the provincial Health Department's chief midwife.

Midwives in the Central Health region aren't providing delivery services because they don't have the minimum number of staff to maintain their current call schedule, she said.

"It was set up to be based in Gander. So when obstetric services aren't being offered in Gander, this is obviously a challenge for the midwives and for the program," Thompson said Tuesday.

Submitted by Brianna Thompson
Submitted by Brianna Thompson

"So when those rolling diversions between Gander and Grand Falls stopped, and services have actually remained in Grand Falls, the midwives did find themselves no longer able to sustain their services at that distance from their home base."

Thompson called Osborne's promise a "clear commitment and vision," which she sees as a first step in moving recruitment efforts forward.

"It is challenging to recruit when there's uncertainty. And now, without the uncertainty, I think we'll be more successful recruiting folks," she said.

Thompson added the province's health authorities are also working to expand the practice to other regions, with goals to have midwives in the Labrador-Grenfell Health region and Eastern Health region in 2024.

LISTEN | Hear Brianna Thompson's full conversation with CBC News:

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