This time last year, the maternity unit at Hinchingbrooke Hospital was under threat of closure. It was saved by the determination of our communities – patients, new mothers, doctors, nurses, councillors and Hunts Post readers. Today, this newspaper launch

WHAT WOMEN WANT: Chris Dixon head of midwifery at Hinchingbrooke Hospital. Picture: HUNTS POST.

This time last year, the maternity unit at Hinchingbrooke Hospital was under threat of closure. It was saved by the determination of our communities - patients, new mothers, doctors, nurses, councillors and Hunts Post readers. Today, this newspaper launches a £70,000 fundraising campaign to help further improve the facilities available at the maternity unit and the special care baby unit, and ensure a bright future. ANGELA SINGER reports.

DELIVERING babies is not the skill, says Chris Nixon, head of midwifery at Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon.

"The skill is in knowing what women want," she said. "Some women want to be left alone in labour while others want a lot of firm support, even direction and it is knowing what people want and supporting their choices in their pregnancy and labour that is important and that's what we want to do."

It is a skill that has made the maternity unit at Hinchingbrooke popular with expectant mothers, not only from Huntingdonshire but from across surrounding counties.

However, that popularity counted for nothing when the NHS delved into the workings of Hinchingbrooke as it examined the hospital's finances and with it, its very future as an acute services hospital.

The NHS felt the mothers' scorn as the women and their partners set up a group to fight for the unit to remain at Hinchingbrooke, determined to have their babies locally rather than at the large units in Cambridge or Peterborough.

After a long battle, their wishes were to come true, with Hinchingbrooke now planning to expand its services into Cambourne and create a midwife-led birthing unit.

However, this transformation is costing money - £250,000 - but is aiming to allow women to feel in control of their labour. The unit will be designed to be as close as possible to giving birth at home, in a relaxed atmosphere.

Women know if they relax, the labour is shorter and it is less painful and safer for both mother and child.

And this is where the readers of The Hunts Post can help. We are aiming to raise about £35,000 for the unit to provide a new bedroom with an ensuite bathroom for expectant mothers.

Not only would it have all the facilities needed to support and relax an expectant mum, it would also allow their partners to stay in hospital, together in a private room.

Mrs Nixon said it is a facility the unit has been after for some time.

Hinchingbrooke has 85 midwives, some of whom also work in the community and it delivers some 2,400 babies each year. Ideally, the hospital would like to increase this to 3,000 to make absolutely sure of the financial viability of the unit, hence its expansion into Cambourne.

When the maternity unit at the hospital was in danger, this time last year, the campaigning group MUM (Maternity Unit Matters) was set up to save it by mothers whose babies had been born at the hospital.

The spokesman for the group was Jenny Barrett whose three children were born at Hinchingbrooke - Joseph, seven, Ethan, four and Nicholas one. Mrs Barrett is a National Childbirth Trust ante-natal teacher and she also sits on the Maternity Services Liaison Committee, a group of public and professionals, including midwives, and consultants.

Mrs Barrett, 36, from St Neots, goes as far as to say that the maternity service on the maternity ward, Hazel Ward at Hinchingbrooke is unique.

"The feedback we get from couples is that it is a very personal service and people appreciate that. There is a really nice atmosphere on the ward and all the staff really want to work there. The midwives are very supportive of what the women really want - you don't feel like you are on a conveyor belt as I am told that women do in the large teaching hospitals. Women feel that they are treated as individuals, not as a number.

She added: "The first few hours after a baby's birth are so vital. We know it can make an enormous difference to bonding. It is a fantastically special time and that time should be comfortable and the experience should be valued."

Mrs Barrett points out the difference of scale. There are twice as many babies - some 5,000 - born at The Rosie, the maternity unit at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

However, while the spirit at Hinchingbrooke leads to happy mothers and healthy babies, Mrs Barrett said the environment did have room for improvement.

"Environmental factors can be off putting. The hospital is not new and shiny. There are two rooms that have ensuite facilities but there are six that don't.

"The hospital wants to provide rooms that are a home from home so that women classed as low risk can have low intervention. They want them to be able to make the rooms their own for the duration of the labour so that this is a half way house between a home birth and a hospital birth. This is something that women want and the important thing is that they have the choice."

She added: "When we thought the unit might close there were a number of reasons people wanted to fight for it. One was that people's experiences there were extremely positive. Over 140 people wrote personal letters to the Strategic Health Authority saying why they wanted the unit to stay open, which is remarkable because closure wasn't certain, it was only threatened but that number of people still felt strongly enough to write. It was an opportunity for people say how good the hospital is.

"The other reason was the travelling distance to either Cambridge or Peterborough if the maternity unit closed. It is a long journey when you are in labour and it is also a long journey for ante-natal visits and scans."

Mrs Barrett said that information about other hospitals across the county made her realise just how good maternity at Hinchingbrooke Hospital is.

"This is a fantastic local service. It is important to maintain it and improve facilities there.

"I get the feeling we have won the battle but perhaps not the war. It is a small unit and if there is a crisis again, we are much more likely to keep it if we have allowed it to build up a reputation and become a beacon of excellence.