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Parents left struggling as staff shortages shut down birth units

It’s past midnight and Kendra Duval, already late, sits on the edge of the tub after two days of preterm labor, her bag of waters finally breaking and intense contractions going on.

She prepared for a hospital birth, but there isn’t one she can go to. Her husband is on the phone with a nurse at a hospital in the small town of Winchester in North Dundas, Ontario, trying to figure out where to drive.

They should be heading to Winchester by now, but their birth unit was closed overnight due to staff shortages.

Duval knows the baby is coming. He can’t stop the contractions of his body or slow them down. “It was definitely the scariest moment of my entire life,” he said.

After the mess that followed, the couple wants people to know that health care in the province is in dire need of fixing, and that staffing problems extend beyond the emergency rooms of some hospitals.

“I should be here relaxing and recovering from the birth and just enjoying my baby. But I’m so angry that it happened to me, and I’m so upset that it could happen to someone else, that I feel like I have to say something about it.” said.

A baby in a crib.
A short umbilical cord that could not be moved by hand was wrapped around Kayce Duval’s neck when she was born and had to be cut. Her parents wonder what would have happened if they had been driving at the time. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Until a week before her November 20 due date, Duval had no idea that her hospital’s obstetrics unit might go out of business.

She found out about it by chance, at a routine checkup with her obstetrician and gynecologist (ob-gyn).

Duval, her husband, and their four-year-old daughter live in the small eastern Ontario community of Russell, Ontario, a half-hour drive southeast of downtown Ottawa. The couple chose to have their second child at Winchester District Memorial Hospital, also a half-hour’s drive away, because of her reputation for obstetrics.

The staff at her OB/GYN office said they were running late; the doctor had to help women who needed induction and could not go to the hospital that night because the maternity unit did not have enough staff to stay open.

Now I feel that everything is in danger again because maybe we won’t have help at the moment, when the moment arrives.-Kendra Duval

Duval, “shocked” by what she heard, asked what would happen to her in that situation. They told her that the hospitals communicate regularly with each other, that another hospital would accept her if the need for her arose, and that she did not care about her.

But she worried. She had recently suffered a miscarriage and, as a result, she was being closely monitored. And this time, COVID-19 and other viruses have left her sick on multiple occasions.

“I told my husband, I’ve spent nine, 10 months doing everything I can to protect this baby and make sure it’s safe. And now I feel like everything is in jeopardy again because maybe we won’t have help in the moment, when the moment comes.”

A hospital.
Winchester District Memorial Hospital said closing its birth unit “is the safest option” for both patients and employees when there are not enough staff available. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

When the time came, on the night of November 22, after two days of preterm labor, the Winchester delivery unit was to be closed from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. due to understaffing. .

“These short-term closures typically happen a few times a year, but with staffing challenges affecting all healthcare, it happened more frequently earlier this year and over the summer,” hospital spokeswoman Jane Adams said. , told CBC News in an email.

“In November, the unit was shut down six times, between eight and 12 hours, each time due to understaffing.”

Across the province this year, 25 hospitals have temporarily closed their maternity units at least once since July 6 (when Ontario Health began tracking the issue) due to staffing shortages.

Ontario Health did not provide a list of hospitals that have closed birthing units.

Another hospital might accept them, but then couldn’t

Duval was just shy of the threshold for admission when she arrived at Winchester hospital before the labor unit closed. The nurse who had been monitoring her progress for the past two days told her to come back in the morning to break her water if that didn’t happen on its own.

“I burst into tears. I said, ‘I’m so scared that he’s coming, that something will happen at night and they’re going to be closed,’” Duval recalled.

So the nurse arranged the paperwork for Duval to go to Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital if her labor progressed, Duval said.

About 45 minutes after I got home, my water broke. Her husband called Montfort to tell him they were on their way, but Montfort said there was no more space and for her to call the Ottawa Hospital General Campus.

A hospital.
Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital said it is experiencing a nursing shortage like other hospitals in Ontario, and that the closure of birthing units at nearby hospitals “also affects us.” (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

Duval’s partner called the Winchester nurse. The General didn’t have space either, she reported, but Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital did.

It was an hour away.

“She could hear me screaming in the background, so she ended up saying to my husband, go back to Winchester, I’ll re-evaluate you. And if necessary, maybe we can get an ambulance to take you,” Duval said.

They came to the ER to re-register. It was too late to go anywhere else.

“I was completely in a panic. I was erratic… Everything was happening so fast. I kept telling them… I can’t do this, I’m going to die, I just didn’t feel safe,” Duval recalled.

The nurse guided her, along with another borrowed nurse and an ER doctor, until an OB/GYN showed up 40 minutes later, just in time to deliver.

I don’t think anyone deserves to be in that situation; not me as a mother, but not her as someone just trying to do her job.-Kendra Duval

A short umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, too short to move by hand. It had to be cut while the labor was still going on, and then the staff worked on it for 15 minutes to make sure it was okay.

Duval said the staff was “incredible” (neither she nor her husband are upset with the hospital at all), but that the situation was unfair to everyone.

“[The nurse] she sent me home as safely as she could at the time, only to find me back there…completely erratic, in full labor, with no time to waste. I don’t think anyone deserves to be in that situation; not me as a mother, but not her as someone just trying to do her job,” she said.

“They’ve done everything they can for us, but we feel like the system has failed us overall and it’s failed them as well,” added Ken Duval.

A newborn baby.
Kayce Duval, six days old, is held in the arms of her mother at her home in Russell, Ontario, on November 29. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘We deserve better than this’

Last week, the five largest health care unions in Ontario announced that staff turnover is nearly 15 percent and that hospitals need to hire 47,000 people to fix the problem and meet the needs of an older population. and growing.

They also warned the province for trying to limit wage increases to one percent.

The province announced Thursday that a record number of nurses, nearly 14,000, had registered in Ontario so far in 2022 and that it was investing $14 million to register more.

Duval said that health care personnel deserve more money and recognition to attract workers.

“Without those people, where are we? They deserve more respect than this, and as normal people just trying to raise a family, we deserve better than this too. Something has to change and it has to change now,” he said.

“I’m just afraid. Afraid that medical care will fail me again, fail [my son].”

CLOCK | The Duvals’ experience in eastern Ontario:

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New parents say the healthcare system failed them

Kendra and Ken Duval said hospital staff “did the best they could” to help the couple deliver their son after the maternity ward closure disrupted their birth plan.

Closing unit is ‘the safest option’, hospital says

In a statement, the Ontario Ministry of Health said it expects hospitals to “ensure that all impacts are considered as they work to deliver the most appropriate range and quality of healthcare services and programs for patients and residents, within resources.” available”.

Families are encouraged to talk with their health care providers “and work together to develop an approach to ensure patients get the right care when it’s needed.”

None of the hospitals involved commented directly on Duval’s situation, citing patient confidentiality.

Winchester hospital said it “does everything possible” to find another hospital for patients when the delivery unit closes, and closing “is the safest option” when there are not enough staff available. He hopes his “nearly full” staff complement will reduce closures.

Montfort Hospital said it can usually accommodate all the patients in its birthing center, but when there are already many people admitted, “we may not be able to provide the level of care that everyone requires.”

“Like other hospitals in the province, Montfort is experiencing a shortage of nurses. The closure of maternity wards in neighboring hospitals also affects us,” the statement read.

A nurse walks towards a patient in the emergency department at Humber River Hospital in Toronto.
A nurse walks toward a patient in a Toronto emergency department in January. Ontario’s five largest health care unions say hospitals need to hire 47,000 people to cope with staff turnover and meet the needs of an older and growing population. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)