Friday's breaking news of Horizon Health Network's decision to permanently close the Upper River Valley Hospital's labour and birth unit blindsided and shocked area residents, including local mayors.
"It's a major betrayal," Woodstock Mayor Art Slipp said Saturday, just hours before Horizon Health announced it reversed its decision.
"It puts women in danger," said Hartland Mayor Tracey DeMerchant of the plans for the hospital which borders her town in Waterville.
Both mayors said they received no indication or forewarning that Horizon Health interim President and CEO Dr. John Dornan would visit URVH late Friday afternoon to announce the labour and birth unit's permanent closure to staff. Even the local government MLAs, Bill Hogan and Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Margaret Johnson, said the announcement surprised them.
As news of the decision hit social media and quickly spread throughout the Upper St. John River Valley communities Friday evening and Saturday, Slipp and DeMerchant prepared to join fast-growing plans to protest the decision.
By Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Dornan delivered the shocking news to URVH staff, both Hogan and Johnson issued statements saying Horizon Health would soon announce the labour and birth unit would stay at URVH.
Late Saturday afternoon Horizon Health Network released a short statement reversing its previous day's decision.
"Further to yesterday's statement, Horizon Health Network will continue to provide labour and birth services at Horizon's Upper River Valley Hospital (URVH) in Waterville," the release stated in its opening line.
Horizon's release added the unit, which is currently closed due to COVID-19, would not reopen immediately, saying only, "services are expected to return to the Upper River Valley area in the coming weeks."
While happy to hear Horizon's Saturday announcement, Slipp sees Friday's announcement as a reason for concern about URVH's future.
"We're very pleased to see the reversal of a decision that should never have been made in the first place," said the Woodstock mayor.
However, he said, the dramatic weekend events surrounding the hospital raise the question, "what is next?"
"The citizens of the Upper St. John River Valley will continue to watch and monitor what is happening at Upper River Valley Hospital, and if there's going to be any downgrade of service in the future, it is imperative that Horizon Health meet and discuss changes with the mayors of the Upper St. John River Valley," Slipp said Sunday.
While blindsided by Friday's closure announcement, the Woodstock mayor said rumours circulated for years that labour and delivery and other services, including general surgery, were at risk.
Slipp said these rumours flew in the face of the original mandate of the modern facility when it opened in November 2007. The new modern facility in Waterville, near Hartland, replaced the Carleton Memorial Hospital in Woodstock, the Northern Carleton Hospital in Bath, and took over several of the services of the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Perth-Andover.
When built, Slipp said, the URVH was supposed to be a centre of excellence in rural health care and a training site for medical students from Dalhousie University's family practice group.
He explained part of the original complex included a residence for medical students studying rural family medicine at the facility.
"Obstetrics was a critical part of the delivery of services at the Waterville hospital and tied into the training program," Slipp said.
He said Woodstock and Perth-Andover fought hard to keep their current hospital but eventually accepted that the new hospital would deliver enhanced medical care for the entire valley.
"There has been a betrayal of that commitment to the citizens here when the communities were asked to let the local community hospitals close and concentrate services at the Upper River Valley Hospital," he said. "That was a very difficult process that we went through."
DeMerchant and Slipp noted their towns' respective partnership with the Upper River Valley Hospital Foundation, which raised thousands of dollars to provide state-of-the-art equipment to the facility, including its labour and delivery unit.
DeMerchant said Hartland's council, administration and residents, like those in communities throughout the entire region, developed strong bonds with the hospital to ensure it delivers high-quality service to the region.
She said Hartland became the first town, through the foundation's efforts, to adopt the Waterville hospital. Business people and individuals throughout the valley support the foundation with significant gifts and donations.
In August, Demerchant stood in at the URVH front entrance to present a $7,800 donation to the foundation on behalf of the town and its residents.
The Hartland mayor echoed her Woodstock counterpart in noting the hospital opened in 2007 to be a centre of excellence.
"And it has been," she said but acknowledged that excellence appears under threat.
Speaking before Horizon's reversal, DeMerchant said she nor the doctors she works for saw Horizon's announcement coming.
"It was a jolt," she said.
DeMerchant said Horizon and the Department of Health must include affected communities in their service-related plans and clearly explain the basis for their decisions.
"People are reasonable if they're given a reasonable explanation," she said.
Slipp said the region narrowly averted losing an essential health-care service over the weekend, so he'll be closely watching future developments.
"When you read Friday's release, there is no way to interpret that the service wasn't permanently closed on Friday," he said. "We're pleased to see the reversal, but it doesn't make the problem go away."
Dr. Wayne McLaughlin accepts a $7,800 donation, on behalf of the town of Hartland, from Mayor Tracey DeMechant. They are joined by Upper River Valley Area Administrative Director Trish Murray, right.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun