‘Stop being so selfish,’ says mom side-swiped by anesthesiologist shortage
VICTORIA — With her liver failing and her baby’s health on the line, Anne-Marie Frith expected quick care when she went to give birth in December at Victoria General Hospital.
Instead, she says she spent more than three days worrying and waiting for an anesthesiologist to start her caesarean section.
“The fact we were worried my son was going to die in utero was unbelievably difficult,” said Frith, 34, who had obstetric cholestatis, a condition in which bile from the liver builds up in the blood and threatens a fetus. Her doctor wanted to do a caesarean section at 38 weeks.
“The fact my son was going to be poisoned to death, so to speak, was heart-wrenching.”
Mothers like Frith, whose births are delayed or pushed into last-minute emergencies, are the collateral damage in a battle between doctors and the Vancouver Island Health Authority over the cost of a dedicated obstetric anesthesiology unit for pregnancies.
Anesthesiologists say epidurals and C-sections are often delayed because they are overworked, understaffed and need a dedicated unit for pregnancies, especially on the night shift when the one anesthesiologist on duty is busy with emergency room traumas.
VIHA has offered $1.8 million for the unit — roughly $348,000 each for five, full-time anesthesiologists. The salary is what was agreed upon by the B.C. Medical Association, which negotiates compensation for B.C.’s doctors, and the provincial Ministry of Health, VIHA says.
But the anesthesiologists say their counterparts at a similar unit at Metro Vancouver’s Women’s Hospital make $67,000 more. And they want rates like in Alberta, in excess of $500,000, to attract new doctors to this province.
While anesthesiologists and VIHA duke it out over pay, Frith said mothers have a message for both sides: “Stop being so selfish.”
“It’s a whole money situation, and it’s really complicated, but they need to deal with it right now,” she said. “What’s the cost of a human life, and the emotional damage and trauma you are doing to moms like myself?”
Frith said her delivery, originally scheduled for Nov. 28, was cancelled numerous times due to the lack of an anesthesiologist. She would fast for hours, be told her procedure was rescheduled, and get only minutes to eat before fasting resumed.
When health officials found out she planned to contact the media on Dec. 1 — three days after her first surgery date — she said she was put on the operating table “literally within 10 to 15 minutes” to deliver her son Lincoln.
Others weren’t as lucky. The former head of Victoria General Hospital’s anesthesiology department, Dr. Tim Relf, has said two babies were seriously injured and one died at the hospital in the last year in cases where quicker delivery from a dedicated team of obstetric anesthesiologists could have made a difference.
Some families are refusing to return to the hospital.
Alistair Stewart and his wife May Antonette Pavia said they’ll likely choose a different hospital for their next child after an experience last October.
Thirty-seven hours into labour, with Pavia running a high fever, an obstetrician ordered an emergency C-section, said Stewart. It’s supposed to be done almost immediately, but Stewart said they had to wait two hours for an anesthesiologist. “We felt the system failed us,” said Stewart.
Their son Christopher appears fine, he said.
Stewart wrote to VIHA last month, asking for a formal review of his wife’s care and saying the hospital’s insufficient staff may put other mothers at their babies at risk. “It’s totally unacceptable,” he said.
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