Mothers struggling to breastfeed will soon be without lactation consultants at Health Sciences Centre because of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's effort to save $83 million.
New moms and moms-to-be could also soon be asked to take their own postpartum pads and disposable mesh underwear to the hospital. That was included in a WRHA draft communication submitted to the Manitoba government for review.
The draft was accidentally released and circulated among online Manitoba mother forums. It resulted in a petition to Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, which had more than 3,200 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
"This seems to be a series of what I would call attacks on women's reproductive health," said NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine.
"At the best of times when you're going in to have a baby you're anxious and excited and nervous and scared... this adds stress."
Earlier this week, the WRHA announced cuts to women's health care, including the Mature Women's Health Centre at Victoria Hospital.
"It's very disconcerting and very confusing to have these dribs and drabs of information given on a weekly basis almost," said Sandi Mowat, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union. She said it's becoming clear restructuring "is really about saving money... and now they're doing it on the backs of patients."
Courtney Sawatsky, a nurse at the Women's Hospital at Health Sciences Centre, was so disheartened when she heard the news during her Wednesday night shift that she posted an appeal on Facebook, imploring the public to reach out to their local MLA.
"The changes that are happening will not be helpful to the average person in Winnipeg, and will be horrible for our low-income families," she wrote, "Putting patients first? No. None of these changes put patients first."
The two lactation consultants are crucial on the busy maternity ward, Sawatsky told the Free Press Thursday. They help moms who are struggling to get their babies to breastfeed, and those who are forced to stay longer in hospital, or those with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
"They didn't really give any information on how we're going to be dealing with these issues in the future," she said of WRHA officials who broke the news to staff Tuesday.
In a statement, a WRHA spokeswoman said the service "will now be provided by the full complement of nurses on post-partum wards."
"These nurses will work with a clinical nurse specialist and an educator to build upon their existing skills and knowledge to provide this service to patients," she said.
Following discharge "new mothers will have access to breastfeeding supports based out of community breastfeeding clinics closer to home," she said.
But Sawatsky said nurses are swamped and unable "to provide the level of care and expertise" that the consultants do. She felt compelled to speak out because she worries it's far too easy for the public to miss the implication of cuts amid the deluge of changes.
"It might not be obvious first-hand how these broad changes will impact people. And people who haven't had a baby might not realize that lots of issues come up with breastfeeding. People are readmitted because of problems" - Courtney Sawatsky, a nurse at the Women's Hospital at Health Sciences Centre via Facebook
"It might not be obvious first-hand how these broad changes will impact people," Sawatsky said, and "people who haven't had a baby might not realize that lots of issues come up with breastfeeding. People are readmitted because of problems."
The importance of the service cannot be understated, said Fontaine, especially for women who are poor.
Fontaine said she struggled to breastfeed her eldest son and almost gave up before a lactation consultant stepped in to help.
"They are a very, very highly valued resource throughout Health Sciences Centre," said Mowat, adding the two lactation consultants are often called for consults from across the province and by public health nurses.
"This is a big loss for women," she said.
The cuts, coupled with the possibility that women may soon be asked to provide their own postpartum pads and disposable mesh underwear when they give birth, is infuriating, Fontaine said.
"The utter ridiculousness of it all," she said, "to imagine that by cutting women's mesh underwear in the process of labour and afterwards is going to significantly impact (Premier Brian) Pallister's perceived deficit is really just quite ridiculous."
The WRHA spokeswoman said "no changes to the supply of feminine products post-partum have been approved or implemented."
She said "efficiencies" would account for "vulnerable patients or those facing financial challenges." Draft communications have been shared by two doctors "in error," the spokeswoman said, and they "have been instructed to stop doing so."
Still, Sawatsky said a doctor and midwife at the Women's Hospital were told to inform their patients to "bring their own" postpartum feminine products. The Free Press was unable to reach either the doctor or the midwife.
Miriam Unruh James, the Winkler mother of three who started the petition after the WRHA draft was posted in one of her online mom forums, said the draft communication rallied people who weren't part of the forums.
The letter advises women on what to pack for their labour and hospital stay. At the bottom is a note that "mesh panties are not provided by the hospitals" and it includes ideas about where to purchase them.
This type of proposed cut has the potential to harm rural women who are forced to give birth in Winnipeg if they develop complications during pregnancy, James said.
"When very unforeseen things are happening... then we're even more likely to be unprepared, and then even more likely to be in a very vulnerable situation."
At the Women's Hospital, Sawatsky said staff continues to do what's best for their patients.
"We just keep giving patients pads and panties if they need them," she said. "If you had a wound that needed dressing I wouldn't say, 'I have to wait another 12 hours.'"