Expectant parents in Norfolk County in southwestern Ontario will now have to drive to Brantford to give birth after Norfolk General Hospital (NGH) shut down its labour and delivery ward on Monday.
The closure of obstetrical care at NGH means some parents-to-be will now have to travel more than an hour to the hospital in Brantford, which is about 40 kilometres west of Hamilton — likely while they are in labour.
Norfolk's general hospital, in Simcoe, Ont., near Lake Erie, is the only one in the county.
"It saddens our hearts because there's so many women in the community who [will be] travelling much further," said area midwife Monica McPherson, who called the closure a big loss for the community.
"The [Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada] guidelines say the safest place to give birth is closest to home… The impacts are huge," said McPherson, who is part of a four-person team at Midwives of East Erie. The group had hospital privileges at NGH which meant their clients could choose to deliver there.
Nursing shortage and COVID stress to blame
Norfolk General announced the plans in a release last Tuesday.
"With a heavy heart, we have concluded that these services will temporarily close at NGH on September 13," it stated. "The transition to [Brant Community Healthcare System] is expected to last between 12 to 18 months."
NGH, which it says has brought "tens of thousands of babies into the world since the hospital opened in 1925," is more than 40 kilometres from its counterpart in Brantford.
The release cited the nationwide nursing shortage as one of the reasons for the closure, as well as the stresses COVID-19 has placed on the healthcare system.
"NGH understands this change may be concerning to families that are expecting," it said. "All expectant mothers will be contacted by their healthcare provider to discuss their plan of care going forward."
NGH said the hope is to bring the program back "when things stabilize."
Challenges for rural care
McPherson says there were about 350 births at Norfolk General in 2020. She says midwives, including her organization and Norfolk Roots Midwives, conducted 108 of those births. It's her understanding that the last birth that took place there was in the early hours of Monday morning, shortly before the 7 a.m. cutoff for the program.
She says there were several meetings in advance of the closure, where stakeholders brainstormed ideas for keeping the ward open. In the end, she believes the nursing shortage was particularly hard to overcome.
"In a small rural hospital, it's hard to hold onto nurses sometimes," she said, noting rural nurses are expected to work in multiple sections of the hospital, so those who want to specialize end up moving to larger, urban facilities. "It would be nice to see some longer-term solutions for rural areas."
Midwife Monica McPherson, left, poses with client Frankie Guthrie and Guthrie's first baby, Kailey. Guthrie is now pregnant with her third child and was intially planning to deliver at Norfolk General Hospital. (Supplied/Monica McPherson)
McPherson says that so far, the transition to working in Brantford has been relatively seamless, and that her new colleagues have been welcoming and helpful with the integration.
That said, she thinks the distance to the Brantford delivery room may lead more parents in her area to see home births as an option worth considering.
"We have had a couple of ladies already decide, because of the distance, to choose home," she said. "They don't want to travel so far."