The closure of a maternity clinic in central Taranaki has led to at least one woman giving birth on the side of the road.
The Stratford Maternity Unit shut its doors late last year because of a shortage of midwives and no clear decision has yet been made on whether the service will re-open, and a petition has been started to save the clinic.
In the meantime, expectant mothers have to travel to New Plymouth or Hawera to have their babies.
First-time parents Chris and Anna Playle could not believe their bad luck when the Stratford Maternity Unit closed just two weeks before their baby was due.
Things got even worse when their baby, Cohen, decided to arrive early, during the night and in a hurry.
"So the ambulance was called and we headed off to Taranaki Base Hospital but got about 10 minutes down the road and it was all go," said Mrs Playle.
"And, yeah, he was delivered about 15 minutes from home in the ambulance on the side of the road."
Mrs Playle said Taranaki women had a right to expect the same level of services as those in the main centres.
"As a woman going into labour you don't want anything that's going to stop or hinder that labour process, and so you want to be in an environment you are comfortable with and where you know you are safe rather than that fear of having to go in an ambulance and going all the way through to Taranaki Base. And what if there are complications?"
A healthy baby Cohen was delivered about 3am on the shoulder of State Highway 3 a few kilometres outside Stratford, but Mr Playle fears if the maternity clinic remains closed other parents will not be so lucky.
"We've got some pretty remote communities here, you've got Whangamomona, you've got Toko, all those areas leading out to the Forgotten Highway.
"It's only a matter of time, I believe, before something bad happens in an ambulance and then that is going to be the big hoo-ha, you know, a bad story. Ours is a good story."
Staff shortage blamed
The Stratford clinic handled between 60 and 80 of the 1500 births in Taranaki each year.
The Taranaki District Health Board said it was forced to close the unit after the contractor, Maternity Services Taranaki, could not find enough midwives to staff it.
The closure is the second time in 12 months Stratford has been left without maternity services for the same reason.
General Manager of Planning and Funding Becky Jenkins said the board was examining its options for maternity services in Stratford.
"The DHB is really committed to exploring a range of options around the future of the maternity service in Stratford, but clearly anything we do really needs to consider what the likelihood is in securing a sustainable workforce so our ability to recruit and retain those midwives is one of the key considerations."
Ms Jenkins said ambulance births were not unusual and 13 babies were born before their mothers arrived at maternity services in Taranaki in 2014 and 19 the year before.
She implored expecting parents to make sure they had plans in place should labour begin unexpectedly.
"I would really encourage them to speak to their LMC, lead maternity carer, who has responsibility for co-ordinating all their care. They can work together around their birth plans, particularly around the time it might take to travel to a different location," she said.
New Zealand College of Midwives midwifery adviser Norma Campbell said the college was working with the health board to help find a solution to the staff shortages at Stratford.
"These units, they don't have big birthing volumes but they are important units. We live in a country that's got wide geography, with distinct communities.
"When women are having babies in those communities there needs to be a place where they can go and, no, it is not acceptable that those places are not open and women have to have babies on the side of the road."
Ms Campbell said there were 54 similar clinics around the country and a permanent closure of the Stratford unit was not an option the college would support.
"Our bottom line as a college is that we want these maternity clinics open, we don't want them moth-balled, because we actually know what it does to these communities of women when they are a long way away from the base hospital and they need to know they have got somewhere to go to be seen or assessed, or to give birth."
Hundreds sign petition
Meanwhile, Stratford mother Jess Brocas, who gave birth a the clinic to son Zac - now seven months old - has started a petition at Change.org to help save the maternity service.
Ms Brocas said she started the petition, which more than 700 people have signed, because she believed the Stratford maternity clinic should not be surrendered without a fight.
"I've had people make comments to me about friends who ended up birthing on the side of the road. Now that's not what you want your first childbirth experience to be about, being terrified on the side of the road."
Ms Brocas said in her opinion the Stratford service was superior to that offered at Taranaki Base Hospital.
"A primary maternity facility is a less medicalised alternative. It's the middle ground between a home birth and being in a hospital room with doctors and nurses and drugs and all those sorts of things."
Ms Brocas said it was also more family friendly.
"It's also that recovery side of it as well because of course it's more than just the hours spent labouring, it's that time and days afterwards especially for a new mum, for a first-timer, when you are learning everything and it is a massive learning curve.
"So to have people on hand and to be in a relaxed environment where dads are welcome to be there and don't have to come at visiting hours and you've got nurses who aren't completely rushed off their feet is just great."
Anna Singh had her son Sharuq, 2, and daughter Priya, 1, at the Stratford unit and had been hoping to have her third child, due in August, there.
Mrs Singh agreed the clinic offered a service unlike the others available in Taranaki.
"You're in your own private room, your partner can be with you all day long and stay overnight so they can learn to be a dad.
"You get three meals a day, morning and afternoon tea. You get one-on-one button care so you have everything you want at your finger tips and a nurse takes your baby away at night if you want a sleep. It's just really nice care."
Mrs Singh said she was anxious about having to travel to New Plymouth for her next child's birth because the first two were delivered so quickly.
"I will have to travel about 50 minutes to New Plymouth when the baby is due and due to my previous labours, they've been quick, it might not happen there, it might happen in the car or ambulance.
"It would be ideal to be in Stratford at the time, just the travel factor to New Plymouth and the fact it is away from family and I'll have to find someone to look after the kids. It's a wonderful facility and it would be ideal for every Stratford mother for it to stay open."
The Taranaki DHB said it expected to make a final decision on the Stratford maternity unit's future in March.