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Patients, doctor raise alarm over anesthesiologist shortage in Sask. hospital

Pregnant women in southwest Saskatchewan say they aren't sure where to deliver their babies. That's because the hospital in Swift Current is down to just one anesthesiologist who may not be working when they go into labour.

1 anesthesiologist at Swift Current hospital serving region spanning hundreds of square kilometres

A woman and a man hold up a baby in a safety seat.

Pregnant women in Southwest Saskatchewan say they aren't sure where to deliver their babies.

That's because the Cypress Regional Hospital in Swift Current, which serves a region spanning hundreds of square kilometres, is down to just one anesthesiologist who may not be working when they go into labour.

"The idea of giving birth is stressful enough. This feels very odd in this day and age," said Caitlin Willman, whose baby is due in less than a month.

An anesthesiologist, a doctor with several years of additional specialized training, administers sedation and other medication during hospital surgeries and a host of other procedures. Not having enough medication can result in extreme pain, but too much can be fatal.

Anesthesiologists attend cases ranging from major emergency room trauma to kidney stone removal. They also assist in births.

Swift Current is about 225 kilometres west of Regina.

CBC News interviewed nearly a dozen women from southwest Saskatchewan who recently had babies or are due in the coming weeks.

Karolin Evenson had her baby in Swift Current's Cypress Regional Hospital in June, but isn't sure she'd "take that chance again."

Evenson lives 90 minutes southwest of Swift Current. She went into labour on a Thursday and assumed there would be full staffing. She got there and was told the anesthesiologist would only be there for another seven hours.

Evenson said the doctors and nurses were as nervous as she was.

"They were watching the clock," she recalled.

"What if something does go wrong, then what happens? So there was this, 'Oh my goodness, the clock is ticking. Am I going to have to be shipped out to Regina?' It was very nerve-wracking, a little bit like a ticking time bomb."

All was going well, but then her progress stopped. Doctors told her she may need a caesarian section, a procedure that requires anesthetic. It was well past the seven-hour mark. The anesthesiologist's long shift was over and he had left.

Things got moving again and Evenson was able to complete a vaginal delivery in Swift Current. She said doesn't want to think about what would've happened to her or the baby if she had to be packed in an ambulance and driven 250 kilometres to Regina for the caesarian.

But that wasn't the end of the drama. Not all of Evanson's placenta came out. She needed emergency surgery.

"They decided that I had to go to the [operating room] for a removal. They said I'd need conscious sedation. It's normally performed by an anesthesiologist, so they wheeled me down to the OR — kind of nerve-wracking," she said.

"I did find out later I was the first one to go to the OR without an anesthesiologist. It was quite scary for me."

She was sedated by an emergency room doctor. The surgery was a success.

"Luckily, I had a great nurse and the doctors were great, too. It's just unfortunate they were all put in that position. It was scary. I was quite nervous. Especially right after giving birth to a baby, already having emotions running high."

Swift Current urologist Dr. Francisco Garcia said the shortage affects a wide range of hospital services.

"I would have a full surgical day ready to go, but when we only have one [anesthesiologist], we have a couple of surprise caesarean section suddenly come on board, well, of course the baby takes priority. And I've had entire days lost because of that and there's not much I can do about it," he said.

Garcia said these patients get bumped, then push others further down the wait-list, and so on.

He said it's not the anesthesiologist's fault. He said the man, who is in his mid-70s, is doing everything he possibly can.

"It's difficult for one person to keep the entire surgical program afloat. This particular [anesthesiologist] is in some ways his own type of hero. He's doing far more than I think could be expected of anybody. He is really pushing himself as far as, I think, farther than anybody should be asked to," Garcia said.

Garcia said the shortage also affects the hospital's ability to conduct research and innovate, key parts of rural health care.

"We were actually training on a new technology, a new device were going to try to bring in for a certain type of surgery. We had the technology there, we had the device rep there, everything's ready to go," he said.

Because there was no anesthesiologist, "we weren't able to turn [the device] on all day," he said.

In an email, a Saskatchewan Health Authority official said it's still safe for women to deliver babies at the Swift Current hospital. If there's no anesthesiologist on shift, and "if [patients] are deemed to be a high-risk delivery, they are transferred to an alternate hospital able to provide the required services."

The SHA said there's a national shortage of these specialists, but that it is working hard to hire more.

Most pregnant women interviewed said they may bypass Swift Current and make the trip to Moose Jaw, Regina or Medicine Hat.

"If they say, 'Hey, there's no anesthesiologist right now and you're in active labour. You have to make that choice.' For me, I'm not willing to take that risk if there are the service disruptions in place while I'm in active labour," Caitlin Willman said.

"Yeah, a lot of factors add an extra level of stress that really shouldn't be there."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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