Premature twins bumped from hospital to hospital because of NICU overcrowding
Premature twins Nikau and Blake Shilling were sent to Wellington on Christmas night to make space in Christchurch's Neonatal Intensive Unit (NICU), only to be sent to Nelson two weeks later.
Their mother, Jonelle Shilling, said it was "probably the most traumatic time in my life", as advocates warn NICU overcrowding unfairly affects vulnerable mothers with twins.
At least two other Christchurch mothers of twins were sent to other cities to give birth in the past six months.
Overcrowding has plagued Christchurch Women's Hospital's NICU since it opened in 2005, as women get pregnant later in life and at-risk pregnancies increase. Since the start of this year, there have been more babies in the unit than cots.
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Shilling, who is from the West Coast, had an emergency caesarean at 29 weeks of gestation at Christchurch Women's Hospital in mid December.
The birth went well, but, a week later, NICU told her they needed to send her and her newborn boys to Wellington Hospital. The unit needed the cots for two babies in urgent need.
Her partner and four-year-old daughter could not go. Shilling packed for a flight at 4.30 am.
"The minute I agreed to this, no nurse or doctor made us feel comfortable at all. They treated us really rudely as if we should just hurry up and get out," she said.
"I had no sleep at all and was crying all night."
The tiny one-week-old twins were strapped down into incubators with sticky yellow earmuffs before going in the air ambulance.
"It was really nerve-racking."
"The doctors told me it was easier to send one family and clear two beds then send two families.
"I feel like they really guilt-tripped me into leaving, not realising they were hurting my family because they were tearing us away from each other for so long while the babies grew," Shilling said.
Two weeks later, Wellington NICU was full too. The twins were sent on another air ambulance to Nelson.
After a further two weeks, they took their third air ambulance to Greymouth's Grey Base Hospital, finally close to their Hokitika home. The hospital could not cater for premature babies younger than the twins.
"I would never want another family to ever experience what I did," Shilling said.
NICU overcrowding could get worse as the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) expects a rise in birth rates.
Multiple birth club committee member Katrina Howden has helped other transferred mothers since she was sent to Dunedin to give birth to twin girls in 2014.
"Sending twin mums frees up two beds – they don't want us," she said.
This was unfair on mothers with twins, who were "even more sleep-deprived" with two babies to feed while often recovering from a caesarean birth.
CWH NICU clinical director Adrienne Lynn said transferring premature babies was a rare, last resort decision.
"The only times we've done this previously was after the February 22, 2011 earthquake."
Transfers must be "clinically appropriate".
Admissions to NICU were unpredictable, "so if we get an influx of critical babies who urgently require a cot, we need to prioritise [them]", Lynn said.
Christchurch's NICU cared for up to 1000 babies a year. The Staff worked "extremely hard" and were "very dedicated".
New Zealand College of Midwives advisor Jacqui Anderson said transferring pregnant women and babies "causes upset and distress".
"Unfortunately this is not uncommon for families living rurally in New Zealand," she said.
It could be "extremely difficult and frightening" for women to be away from their home and family support.
- Sunday Star Times