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When love aint enough: Are we about to lose another rural maternity centre?

Lumsden Maternity Centre in rural Southland, where Bill English was born, is in imminent danger of closure. Southerner Victoria Crockford explains why it would be a devastating loss for the community.

I must admit, I really questioned myself the day that the pigs broke into a multi-million dollar building site down the road.

Pinky and the Brain were their names. The genius one got stuck behind the fence and just ran up and down it squealing while I wildly shook food at it. The insane one tried nibbling at my toddler, who was strapped into the bike seat and leaned against a gate as I made my vain attempt to ‘muster’ his mate. She thought it was a game. I had other ideas: I’ve seen the film Snatch.

There was no-one around to help me as I yelled to the boundless Otago sky, “I just wanted to go for a fucking bike ride like a normal peeeeerrrrson!”

There have been those sort of moments.

But, everything that is weird about being a displaced North Island urbanite in rural ‘somewhere near Queenstown’ pales in comparison to the sense of community that I have living near my in-laws, with a tight-knit community of friends – many parents – who give, and care, and share.

And that sense of a community knitting itself around young families is what is at risk as primary care units in rural areas face closure.

I’ve previously written about my love of rural maternity units on the Spinoff Parents.

The birthing room. Practically a day spa. Credit: Lumsden Maternity Centre

Between then and now, I have had my second baby. He is pink and hefty and smells of freshly mown grass and baking biscuits and rose gardens after the rain and all the smells of our very best dreams.

He arrived in this world at Lumsden Maternity Centre in rural Southland – the same place his dad was born. He was delivered safely and with confidence by a midwife who held my hand and made me feel strong and ready; who gently guided my son through warm water and into my arms, into his future.

It was a relaxed atmosphere. My partner was scoffing chili lime cashews between my contractions (and I mean handfuls). There was fresh air and humour. And just like with our eldest, there was most definitely a massive bowl of ice cream and chocolate sauce for after (that is after the pork chops, mash and buttery silverbeet).

The proof is in the pudding – Lumsden Maternity Centre serves food that is actually edible.

I am not alone in my love for Lumsden. Comments on the Lumsden Maternity Centre Facebook page are, quite frankly, gushing.

“An amazing unit with so much love and care from all the staff. Words cannot express how grateful I am to have been able to spend three nights here introducing my husband and I to parenthood!”

“Such a fabulous asset to our community!”

“A home away from home!”

“Amazing place with wonderful caring staff…”

These comments have been backed up by recent media profiling of the unit. New mother Sarah Phillips recently told the Southland Times that, “I had good care in Lumsden with delicious meals, monitoring of visitors so I could get rest, help and encouragement with breast feeding and was able to stay for six days to get the help I needed.”

Delicious meals. Rest. Six days. Enough said.

Not only does Lumsden provide a valued community service, its location on the way to Invercargill means that it provides an emergency service as well.

I have heard more than a few anecdotes from women based in Queenstown-Lakes, Te Anau and Northern Southland along the lines of “that time when I was on my way to Invercargill to birth and my labour started progressing really quickly and we were speeding and a local cop pulled us over and redirected us to Lumsden and the midwife met us and I gave birth in the hallway after she just yanked off my tights”. Seriously.

Lumsden, and its counterpart in Winton, provide waypoints along the 1.5 hour plus drive to Kew Hospital in Invercargill for many expecting parents. I myself thought I would have to pull into Winton to have my first baby. As it was, I was fully dilated and ready to push by the time we got to Invercargill and my partner had to wheel me from the entrance to the maternity unit.

Now Lumsden Maternity Centre – this place of well-being and emergency assistance and so many exclamation marks – is facing an uncertain future.

While I canvassed the threats that rural units face in my previous piece, this imminent threat to the place that has meant so much to our family over two generations spurred me to delve deeper into the specific issues that primary care units are facing. Who are the stakeholders? What are they saying? What does this tell us about the future of other units?

At a public meeting on May 9 it was laid out to the nearly 100 members of the community in attendance that there is a very real possibility that Lumsden will close on July 31 this year, when the contract between the health company that runs it, Northern Southland Health Company, and the Southern District Health Board is up. To stay open, Lumsden needs a “reasonable increase in funding”, according to Carrie Williams, who chairs the NSHC.

At this point, the SDHB has offered a 1 percent increase to the funding Lumsden Maternity receives (the offer expires in September 2018). All signs point to this figure not slotting into the ‘reasonable’ category.

This despite the fact that the use of the unit has actually increased over recent years, and that primary birthing rates are about 12 percent for all births in the southern district – placing it among the highest in the country.

What about central government’s role? Living near Arrowtown, I share an MP with the Lumsden community – Todd Barclay. He has been quoted as “following the process… with great interest” and is scheduled to meet with the other stakeholders soon. Soon is also when a report is expected from the SDHB, which was commenced in March 2016 and is still being finalised.

I get it, it’s a circular thing and one entity can’t act without the other. I get it, Todd Barclay is getting crap flung at him from Gore to Glenorchy as his electorate both booms and struggles. But this level of inaction by the SDHB and the government on a fundamental community service seems inadequate.

Call me naive. Or call me a mother living rurally who relies on funders to have their shit together. Call me someone who would rather give birth in Lumsden than be holding in a baby in an emergency helicopter. Call me eternally grateful to my stellar midwife and the staff in Lumsden. Call me concerned that they will be forced out of the community where their entire lives are because their jobs have evaporated. Call me sad and just a bit pissed about the characterisation of the decline of small communities as inexorable in the face of rationalisations.

I know health funding is complex, and I will not pretend to being any sort of expert. I understand that birth rates have been falling at other rural maternity centres. But, as a parent and a citizen who cares, I am fearful that we are going so far down the road of putting a dollar value on the wellbeing of new families that we will lose the opportunity to turn around. Lumsden is just one example of how we are turning new parents and babies into units of spending.

We know how it takes a village to raise a child. It seems as though our institutions are slowly dismantling our villages, one “amazing unit with so much love and care” at a time.

Donald Andrew with his grandson, Cormac Kahu. Because it takes a village. Credit: Richard Andrew

Victoria Crockford is an Arrowtown-based researcher, writer and analyst. She lives with her partner, daughter and a sheep dog that is probably smarter than her. Find her tweeting @VicLeeCrockford and online at Coronet Wordsmith.

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