An administrative decision by Health Canada is not allowing expectant mothers from the Little Red River Cree Nation to choose where they have their babies, say both band officials and health workers.
Because of the distance between the communities of John D’Or, Fox Lake and Garden River and the nearest hospital, pregnant women are routinely flown to High Level or Fort Vermilion to give birth.
When driving, Fort Vermilion is 40 minutes closer to Little Red River communities than High Level. However, the High Level hospital has caesarian delivery capabilities and can offer epidurals, which St.Theresa, in Fort Vermilion, cannot.
Higher risk pregnant women should be sent to High Level, say the doctors in Fort Vermilion, but that doesn’t include all women.
At a recent public meeting in Fort Vermilion, LRRCN representatives said all LRRCN women are being sent to High Level, whether their medical situation warrants it.
“We feel that Fort Vermilion and St. Theresa’s is our first choice, it always has been,” said Dee Ladouceur, with LRRCN. Ladouceur was the recipient of an email from Heather Young, director of nursing in Alberta for the First Nations and Inuit Branch of Health Canada, indicating the changes.
Licensed practical nurses provide much of the health care on reserve, but that is augmented by weekly visits from doctors in Fort Vermilion, another sore point.
Health Canada says the doctors are providing inconsistent and limited services while the doctors claim that often they are given little or no notice that a scheduled clinic has been cancelled because of weather or a funeral or there are simply not enough patients, leaving them with no work that day.
“The doctors were so upset that they were thinking of leaving,” said Ladouceur. Not only would that eliminate doctor visits to reserve, it could result in the closure of St. Theresa’s hospital, which some suspect has been a provincial plan for some time.
Ladouceur said nurse practitioners on reserve, employees of Health Canada, were told in November 2010 that all pre-natal cases were to go to High Level.
Band councillor Mike Nanooch said he suspects the decision to no longer fly to Fort Vermilion is a financial one because Health Canada does not want to pay for an extra leg of flight.
Some women have reported they asked to go to Fort Vermilion, a more familiar community, but were told by the pilots they aren’t allowed to fly there.
“Our response is that they must be given a choice. First Nation’s women should have a choice, just like any other woman,” Ladouceur said.
Doctors have their own concerns. “The feeling is that the doctors should be the decision maker, if this is a low, medium or high risk (pregnancy),” said one Fort Vermilion doctor, at the public meeting.
One issue may be on the way to being resolved. The medevac planes are no longer allowed to be stationed in Fort Vermilion because they did not have a hangar.
Nanooch said a hangar is in the works and should be constructed by the end of summer. He offered Chief and Council’s assistance in negotiations between the Fort Vermilion doctors and Health Canada.
“We don’t want you saying you’re not going in to reserves, that’s the last thing we want,” Nanooch stated. “The majority of people on reserve want to come to Fort Vermilion. It’s closer to home.”
The Wildrose Native Women’s Association offered its help in improving the birthing experience at St. Theresa’s. With a small budget, they will add music, curtains, photos and other “cosmetic stuff” for the labour rooms. The association was offered $1,300 before the meeting was over.