It has been a tough week-and-a-half for me, having hurt my back and seen my holiday plans, including a Thousand Island cruise I was eagerly looking forward to, collapse. But my bad luck also exposed me to the hospital emergency department, and gave me a first-hand experience of the best and worst of that part of our health-care system.
It all began one morning last week when I felt a pinch in my back as I tried to get out of bed. I didn’t think much of it and went about my day, but by the next morning I could barely move, pain radiating down my leg. Anyone who has experienced this knows the feeling. With some help, I dragged myself to see a doctor. This was the day before the long-planned Gananoque trip and we had to scramble to cancel the booking and get our money back. Disappointment doesn’t do justice to how I felt.
But the doctor had worse news. What I was feeling down my leg from my back was “neurological” pain, and I might have, God knows how, pinched a nerve. I needed an X-ray to help clarify the problem, and that’s where things began to get interesting. I called the Ottawa Hospital’s booking service, but learned that such was the high demand, it might take closer to three weeks to get in.
I didn’t have three weeks to spare, so I called some of the private companies that provide the imaging test, and found one on Clyde Avenue. It took my OHIP card and said if I could wait half-an-hour, the test would be done, and my doctor would get the result in a week! From a three-week wait to same-day service. Imagine that. I had never really thought about the importance of these small outfits in delivering health care, and realized then how crucial they are. But let’s be clear, I am not talking about paying a doctor for service.
Anyway, things were getting out of control, and before I knew it, I ended up at the emergency department. The last time I recall doing that was some 20 years ago, and then there were none of the long wait times you hear about today. I can say from my experience that if you really don’t have to go to emergency, don’t.
The wait alone is enough to drive you nuts. We arrived (my son and I) at 6:50 p.m. Friday, and the place was packed. So many sick people. The registration went fairly quickly, 30 to 45 minutes, and the nurses were very compassionate and professional. The one who saw me acknowledged my pain but said the medication I was already on was the best under the circumstances, and anything stronger would have to be prescribed by a doctor. Then began the wait.
One hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours, six hours — on and on it went, as I waited for my turn. For a place filled with sick people likely to be on a short fuse, the ER was remarkably tranquil. No yelling or cursing. I realized the emergency department can get very chilly in the wee hours, and the nurses were handing out blankets, looking after the infirm, and generally making people comfortable.
It wasn’t until about eight hours later that we were called in to the doctor’s waiting room, and another two before we were seen. The attending physician was very empathetic and apologized for the delay, but he can’t be blamed for the staff shortages at the root of it. My son and I were grateful for his care. When we left, it was about 6:45 a.m. Saturday, a long 12 hours after we arrived.
The good? The care was great, and the people providing it were dedicated. And the bad? Twelve hours at the ER when you are sick is too much to bear. The provincial government must get serious about fixing wait times. Patients deserve better.
Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Reach him at [email protected]
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