Hospital tales to scare patients into recovery

The National Post  Saturday, March 11, 2000

Why don’t you write about something important? queried a woman I was interviewing last week, clearly about a subject she considered trivial. She then proceeded to regale me with some hospital horrors that had been inflicted on a member of her family. Her anger brought to mind two incidents of which I had personal knowledge.

Incident No. 1: In October of l996 I went into a Toron­to hospital for a hysterectomy, a relatively routine opera­tion necessitated by a rapidly growing uterine fibroid. When my gynaecologist, who had hitherto failed to mention  the fibroid’s presence, said it was probably can­cerous and the surgery required would cut me from ster­num to belly button, I sought a second opinion with a family friend,who happened to be a highly respected gy- naecologist. After consultations with him and an excel­lent urologist, I  was referred to a top-notch surgeon. Ex­cept for excessive bleeding, the surgery generally went as planned, but the treatment received in the hospital was, to put it mildly, abysmal. Being wheeled out of intensive care, my mouth filled with saliva and I started to choke rather violently. My obvious distress was ignored by the nurses. That first night, not able to sit up, I vomited sev­eral times. I rang repeatedly for the nurse and, although a nurse answered an hour later, no one came until the next morning to change the sheets. Though my doctor had prescribed a nightly sleeping tablet, the nursing staff who came on the night shift repeatedly refused to comply. The first time I got out of bed, a nurse (or nurse’s aid-  I am using these two terms interchangeably since so many nurse’s aids or generics were filling in for nurs­es) threw a pillow at my stitched abdomen and told me to make the bed. Every evening at 11 when my husband and son left to go home, perhaps paranoid due to the pain and anaesthesia, not to mention the truculence of the nursing staff, I wondered whether I would survive the night. Although scheduled to be in the hospital for a week, I left after four days, more dead than alive.

Incident No. 2: In February, 1999, a newcomer to Ot­tawa, I went skating on the Rideau Canal from Dow’s Lake to the Westin Hotel and back, a distance of about seven kilometres each way. On the return trip, when rounding the last corner to Dow’s Lake, my skate hit a deep pocket in the ice and I fell.  My first recollection is of shakily standing, surrounded by a crowd of concerned teenagers. My head hurt horribly and my legs were very, very tired. I couldn’t remember where I was or why I there. A woman bystander offered to accompany me to the Red Cross at Dow’s Lake. On the way there, my memory started to come back: the move to Rockcliffe Park several weeks earlier; driving the Jeep to the canal and parking it; hiding my boots in a stall that sold beaver tails. Eager to get the skates off my stumbling feet, I de­clined any further help and went to retrieve my boots. Though shaky. I drove myself home. Getting undressed, I could not raise my arm to take off my T-shirt and had to cut it off. I was also extremely sleepy. Having no doctor in Ottawa, I called a hospital emergency department for advice about the head injury and whether it would be dangerous to fall asleep. The nurse said to come in. Un­familiar with directions in the capital city and feeling in­capable of driving on an expressway with only one functioning arm, I called the Rockcliffe Park Village Office to ask where was the nearest hospital. After checking into the emergency ward, I sat there for four hours as the pain in my arm increased. At six, still befuddled I sud­denly realized my husband wouldn’t know where to find me when he came home from work. I called him at his office and he immedlately came to the hospital.  Seeing my deteriorating condition, he became quite angry. Due to his insistence, I was called in to see a doctor. Ignoring the arm that was going into spasms, he ordered X-rays done on my head. We waited until 10 p.m. before the X-ray technician was free, The tests took about half an hour because the technician kept on leaving the room to talk to her boyfriend on the phone in a very loud voice. At 10:30, the doctor took my husband out in the corridor. “The X-rays reveal that your wife has a brain tu­mour,” he said. She will have to stay here until midnight to undergo further tests. At this point, having overheard the conversation, I couldn’t have cared less if I had a brain tumour or not. The pain in my arm was excruciat­ing. It needed to be tended to and then I wanted to get out of the hellhole. I called over a nurse and asked her to put my arm in a sling. “I don’t take orders from you,” she snapped ill-humouredly but did what she was bid. My husband and I had the biggest fight of our marriage be­cause he thought I should stay in the hospital. At home, I sat up in an armchair all night because any movement would cause the neglected arm to go into spasm.

The next morning, my husband took me to another hospital where the staff was prompt and efficient and courteous. I was given a CAT scan that revealed there was no brain tumour. A doctor on duty X-rayed my arm, pronounced my elbow broken and put it in a cast. Under the expert care of the Ottawa Senators’ orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Donald Chow, and with constant physiothera­py, by mid-April I was teeing off at the Mid Ocean Golf Club in Bermuda.

I must confess I hesitated to write about my experi­ences for several reasons. First of all, they were so har­rowing I couldn’t stand to relive them until they had re­ceded somewhat into the past. Second, hate to point fingers when there are so many doctors and nurses who are dedicated professionals. Third, I wasn’t too sure how common my bad experiences were or whether I was just unlucky or even over-sensitive. But now it seems many other people are coming out of the woodwork criticizing Ontario’s health care system, not to mention health care delivery across the country. If can add my one small voice to the burgeoning chorus, perhaps it will help to ef­fect some changes in the system.

I am a white, fairly privileged Canadian with a close family and access to the best medical care around. If those things happened to me, how much worse are the experiences of those without my advantages?