Neonatal upgrade in Prince Albert can’t wait for Victoria Hospital expansion

Like an oncoming labour that can’t be stopped, the need for a bigger and better equipped neonatal unit at Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital can’t wait for an entire hospital upgrade.

A decision is pending on whether to build a new hospital to replace the aging and crowded Victoria, or expand and renovate the existing building. The Saskatchewan Health Authority asked a consultant to examine both options.

Meanwhile, “we need to address a dangerously urgent situation,” said Sherry Buckler, chief executive officer of the Victoria Hospital Foundation, which is in the midst of a $2-million fundraising project to expand the neonatal unit.

Doctors work side-by-side in the neonatal unit at Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert. The image of the doctors, which was shared on Twitter by Dr. Laurentiu Givelichian, the provincial head of Pediatric Critical Care with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, shows the need for a new neonatal facility at the hospital.

The campaign will get a boost on Friday with a 12-hour radiothon broadcast live from the Victoria Hospital lobby.

While Buckler understands there could be a hospital construction announcement in 2020, she said it could take at least seven years before a new or extensively rebuilt hospital is up and running.

Meanwhile, physicians and staff are “doing a remarkable job under extremely difficult circumstances,” Buckler said.

More than 1,500 babies are born every year at the hospital. The neonatal unit was originally planned as a “well baby nursery” but is now the place where a growing number of sick and premature infants are stabilized and cared for.

On Monday, nine babies were crammed into the 357-square-foot space, which must accommodate incubators and chairs for mothers to nurse their newborns, Buckler said. Due to a lack of outlets, medical gases can only be administered to four babies at a time.

Babies are sometimes brought in from Saskatoon and Regina when neonatal units in those cities overflow.

Buckler can speak from her own experience. Seven years ago, her son was born six weeks premature after an emergency caesarean section. They stayed in the Victoria Hospital for two weeks.

They were separated during the first week while her preemie stayed in the neonatal unit. She had to walk from her room to feed him, a trek made difficult because of her surgical incision — and she found no privacy in the neonatal unit, where “everybody’s on top of each other,” she said.

She had trouble bonding with her son due to the physical separation, and this contributed to her postpartum depression, Buckler said.

Babies and staff ‘deserve better’

Dr. Peggy Lambos is one of five pediatricians who cares for the babies in the neonatal unit.

Speaking of the headache-inducing noise and activity in the crowded space, Lambos remarked that someone spending a day there would probably head straight for the Tylenol as soon as they got home.

“It’s time to say these babies and their families and the staff deserve better working conditions,” Lambos said.

Some high-risk mothers are sent to larger centres to give birth, because of the lack of space and equipment in Prince Albert, she noted.

Even so, Lambos and her colleagues often keep more babies in the neonatal unit than it has room for, because most parents would rather be in cramped surroundings than leave home. Sometimes babies and parents are lined up in the hallway, she said.

Lambos stressed that care is never compromised, because everyone is so focused on the needs of the infants.

The new unit will be 4,000 square feet, more than 10 times the size of the existing space — akin to expanding from one room of a large house to the whole house.

It will have 11 private and fully equipped baby bays, with warmers, incubators, medical gases, monitors and a pullout bed and chair for mom. There will also be a separate medical assessment room, a special area for bathing and changing, and a larger and more comfortable waiting room for families.

It will be set up in the space vacated by the materials management department, which in turn is moving into the space left vacant when the in-house laundry closed.

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