When Krista Christie's four-year-old son with leukemia began to run a fever this week, she brought him to nearby Yarmouth Regional Hospital where his "treat promptly" card meant he was whisked past other patients.
What Christie initially didn't know was whether Hunter would be ultimately treated there, or face yet another three-hour ambulance ride to Halifax so he could be cared for by a doctor specializing in children.
"There's a huge need here in Yarmouth for a pediatrician," she said.
There hasn't been one in the area since December, when Dr. Laurie Gillespie left. The other pediatrician caring for children in the region, Dr. Dominique Couture, retired in the summer.
It's left Nova Scotia Health Authority urgently trying to hire qualified doctors to fill the need.
Pediatricians in high demand
Dr. Cheryl Pugh, who oversees pediatric services in Yarmouth, Bridgewater and Kentville, said she and others within the health authority are working "very diligently" to recruit a pediatrician from right across the country.
"It's been a priority since we became aware of the impending vacancies," she said.
The problem, said Pugh, is the pediatric field is highly competitive and the health authority is having trouble finding doctors to move to rural areas where they're the only pediatrician.
"Pediatricians are a valued resource, as we're coming to discover, and it's not necessarily easy to recruit to that type of a practice," said Pugh.
Being the only pediatrician means being on-call around the clock.
"When you talk about lifestyle for physicians and when you have a smaller on-call group, that is more difficult to recruit," said Pugh.
Many parents, kids forced to go to Halifax
In the meantime, parents like Christie are often forced to take their children to the IWK Health Centre.
Hunter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia three years ago. Thankfully, he didn't have to be transferred to Halifax this week, as his blood counts did not decline too far and he could be sent home with an antibiotic.
However, he's been forced to make the trip three times previously because there was no pediatrician in the Yarmouth emergency department.
He already travels to Halifax every three months for routine treatments that include lumbar punctures, chemotherapy treatments and bone marrow testing.
"Our treatments are slowing down and hopefully there's a light at the end of our tunnel," Christie said. "I feel bad for the new patients that are coming in."
In the beginning, Hunter's treatment meant appointments with a pediatrician every two weeks, then eventually every month and every two months. Most of it could take place in Yarmouth when there was a pediatrician.
"It was nice because if I had to go into emerg in the evenings or on weekends, there was always a pediatrician on call so if I had any troubles I always had somebody right there that could come in and see us," said Christie.
'Absolutely a priority for us'
Some Yarmouth-area children are being treated in Kentville, said Pugh, but others have to sent on to the IWK.
While Pugh and her team try to fill vacancies in Yarmouth, she said the health authority is working on collaborations with the IWK to get support for more rural areas.
"This is absolutely a priority for us. We share the concerns of these parents that are worried about the status of the pediatric coverage," she said.
"Unfortunately, you can't make doctors work in an area they're not interested in. We certainly are doing our very best to promote the area as a very wonderful place to live and work. It's a great community."