Thursday, July 28, 2011


Parking Costs Poison Life

Mary and I were driving downtown because it's difficult to rush between medical appointments on the TTC. And so we found ourselves at Bay and Bloor, a black hole when it comes to parking.
Since I had an emergency engagement with an oral surgeon to chop the ruins of a large molar out of my jaw, we decided she would park a few blocks away and we would rendezvous through cell phones.
Then Mary spotted that Toronto Parking Authority garage that stretches between Cumberland and Yorkville just east of Bay. It's only $2.50 an hour, she said.  I doubted that.  I had some ancient bad history with that garage but I had forgotten the details.
But any port in a storm, because my molar ordeal was now only minutes away. So we drove in, and I saw the charge was really $2.50 for each half hour. Mary then gave that wifely retort about tightwads.
We asked about handicapped parking. We have the necessary permit because both of us walk like drunks. The only attendant in sight said he didn't have anything to do with the garage, just the car wash.
And so we went round and round, occasionally meeting drivers coming down the up ramps. The TPA boasts there are 1,036 spots in "automated" garage  #15, and we discovered a vehicle in every spot.
So we descended, this time again meeting cars going the wrong way. We arrived at the Cumberland exit and couldn't figure out how to get out. The TPA devotes more signage to touting the automatic operation than in how to pay.
Finally, with the aid of drivers jammed behind us, we inserted a credit card - we always carry a couple because TPA machines have a habit of randomly rejecting one - and found we paid $2.50 for 10 minutes of driving in circles.
That works out to $15 an hour, which is high even by the gouging standards of downtown Toronto. No wonder there has been a flight of business and commerce to the free parking of the suburbs.
It's bizarre that I have to give basic instruction to the TPA and its 20 garages, including one of the largest in the world under Nathan Phillips Square, but it is not rocket science for drivers to be told at the entrance when a lot or garage is full. Perhaps the TPA should stop patting itself on the back as a modern and "green" operation just long enough to actually deliver more service to its often captive customers.
Why parking is so sophisticated in some parts, you can drive down an expressway in Beijing
and be told on a roadside sign that there are three empty spots in the garage at the next exit. The TPA couldn't even tell me the garage was full, and then overcharged me to boot.
What is happening in this Yorkville-Cumberland garage is a class example of automation run amuck. Just think of the golden gush of revenue into the city treasury from 1,036 spots renting for $2.50 a half hour. The TPA certainly can afford to have a couple of people walking around keeping an eye on things and helping frustrated drivers trying to shove bills into the credit card slot (which the TPA admits used to happen a great deal when it started this dumb idea avoiding cash.)
With true unemployment probably running around 15%, when you consider all those who have given up  or never started the search, I don't understand rich outfits cheating us in basic service with dumb automation that has to be prodded through the steps like a dumb kid in kindergarten. There are plenty of people hungry for work.
It used to be that automation was fun. As a teenager, I hitchhiked to Manhattan and my first stop was in an Automat where you fed quarters into slots and lifted up a little glass door in a wall of boxes and took out a sandwich or a piece of pie.
Automats have vanished. I suspect, however, that fast-food operators would dump their minimum wage staff if Automats were more efficient. But automation often isn't. It just saves the operator money.
The Automats certainly didn't deliver service.  But then, who does?

Saturday, July 23, 2011



Obituaries often are more bland than enlightening, reciting accomplishments and survival times at various jobs, seldom giving you the racier side or the info that hey, this person was really different.
Yet when I survey this trio of victims from the latest sweep by the Grim Reaper, it's obvious they really stand out.
Elwy Yost, who died at 86, was an unabashed lover of movies and everything about movies. And Brian Vallee, the spinner of yarns, and Billy Jamieson, the collector of shrunken heads, were men who could have easily had their life turned into movies.
I grew up starved for movies. Since my Dutch grandparents banned the Saturday afternoon double feature, I had to sneak in late and leave early. It was only when I got to Weston and its two theatres, where Yost had honed his love more than a decade before, that I went to every movie they had to offer, with side trips to the theatres in Mt. Dennis and the Junction. By then the cost had risen from the dime Yost's father had advanced him, providing he came back and told the story.
I actually got to see the start and the finish of movies, and even could stay to watch blockbusters a second time.
It was with delight I saw Yost on TVO in 1974 with his Saturday Night at the Movies. I thought it was too good to last, that the boring educational station would discover the error of its ways. But he lasted as the most popular show on TVO for most of Toronto. He was just doing what his father had got him to do as a boy, telling the stories.
His replacement for me today is the TBS channel and its main host Robert Osborne. Many a quiet night is rescued by a movie that I've never seen before, or the repeat of a classic.  I know power couples who look forward to becoming couch potatoes and spending the weekend with TBS.
In the old days at  TVO, it was very much the show of that bald teacher with the funny name. It certainly became a confusing muddle after he left in 1999.
There are those who would scorn his approach, that avuncular passion for movies that never had him say a discouraging word. He was not of the school that believed movies had to have a redeeming message. Movies were there as an entertaining diversion from humdrum life. As someone who will watch a great musical, like American in Paris, no matter that I've seen it a dozen times, I agreed with the non-critical approach of Yost. I'm after pleasure, not instruction.
Brian Vallee, who died at 70, showed up in my life at the same time as Yost launched his movies show with those  friendly interviews with faded performers. What a character! Vallee strolled into Toronto journalism like John Wayne in Monument Valley.
He came from the Windsor Star, a provincial daily which certainly punched above its weight when it came to producing staff for the Toronto Sun, where we called them the Windsor Mafia, and indeed for all of the Toronto media.
We had an uneasy relationship because he was covering Queen's Park. I was writing a political column on Page 4 of the Sun five or six times as week. Since I was on this daily treadmill, I wandered from City Hall to Queen's Park to Ottawa in the hunt for material. He was the newcomer but there was an attitude that I was a poacher.
All this was passed over after a few drinks at the Toronto Press Club, one of his favourite haunts. Vallee kept talking and yarning and questioning at the bar, just as he did in his professional life. As Ron Base, a fellow member of the Windsor Mafia and a great writer himself, says about his old friend, he told "one heck of a story." (Although Brian also thought he played a heck of a piano. )
Vallee was a great digger in the finest tradition of investigative journalism, which is a difficult and often frustrating field. His work in TV and documentaries even made it to the Oscar stage.
Perhaps I'm filled with too much nostalgia for the good old days - which often weren't that good - but I miss the days when you could stand at the bar of Canada's press club and all the great characters, from Vallee to Norman DePoe to Duncan Macpherson, would give you the latest insult and jokes and all the gossip, including the stuff that got killed by "those idiot scared editors" out of the big story of the day.
But the press clubs of Toronto and Ottawa are no more, and so an interesting and raunchy side of journalism, right out of The Front Page, has vanished into the memory of old farts.
Billy Jamieson was a match for any character out of any press club. He was so eccentric, it was even mentioned in the obituary. Yost and Vallee would have found him as fascinating as the rest of the world did. The collector who sold the mummy of a pharaoh to an American university for a couple of million bucks. Who may have had a ghost floating over the fish tank he put in an old hearse.
All you had to do was wander his wonderful loft, carved out of an old downtown factory, with Billy holding one of his shrunken heads, listening to him in his reincarnation as carnival barker, or perhaps as an explorer finding a lost tribe, and you realized this was truly a character.
I wrote a blog last November about his Halloween party (Billy Jamieson And His Shrunken Heads). It was one of the best sites in the world for such a party with all the native artifacts and curiosities around you.  In 2009, I wrote columns about him and his weird collection in November and February which would also give readers a taste of a fascinating man who, as the obit said, was a friend of the underground elite.
These dashing Three Musketeers of Toronto life always made you feel as if you just had just accessed the hidden worlds of crime, explorers and Hollywood.
They were truly unique.

Sunday, July 17, 2011



The "discovery" of beavers munching on expensive saplings near the costly condos of Queen's Quay is just the start of the story.
Since beavers can wipe out a grove in a week if given the chance, there will be those people who will want to relocate the animal buzzsaws - which have to gnaw or they grow crazy -  the people who will marvel at getting so close to "wildlife", and a few with the balls enough to say publicly that they should be turned into a nice winter coat.
Count me with the enemies of beaver. They have harmed me more than I have harmed them.  The cultural saint Margaret Atwood has said that our country is built on the back of dead beavers, and I see no reason we should stop now.
There was another "wildlife" fuss recently when a neighbour squealed on a man dispatching a young raccoon to animal Valhalla with an implement usually used in his garden.
The silent majority of Ontario, which is too cowardly to openly say how much they hate raccoon pests, will sit back and let the would-be raccoon killer be sentenced to 20 years by the politically correct judicial system.
After all, in Ontario today, our "wildlife" - which is really not so wild - have been given an exalted status as if animals were thinking individuals that are fellow members at the top of the evolution pyamid.
There are estimates that more deer inhabit Southern Ontario - and indeed my cottage road - than before the white man came and the Indians, who are supposedly in tune with nature ( when they aren't fishing out of season) slaughtered them all, including doe and fawn.
My brother-in-law bought a crossbow to cull the deer cutting up his crops. He didn't want a gunshot attracting a game warden. My brother-in-law has passed on, and so, it seems, have most game wardens, but we now have so many deer around that one will wander down University Ave. and cause massive effort to save it when it should have been shot for the food bank.
There is a lovely leafy neighbourhood in central Etobicoke where cardinals sing and even pileated woodpeckers call at the bird feeders. One man who cares so much about birds that he has the housekeeper stock his feeder when he is playing golf in Florida confided that the chap over the hedge has got rid of dozens of squirrels.
No doubt if the squirrel killer was unmasked by some mouthy activist, he would be given time.
A cormorant colony has ruined a corner of wilderness just off the Eastern Gap of Toronto Habour. Any measures to deal with that colony have been stopped by City Hall, which has also in the past, particularly under David Miller as mayor, stopped any measures to cull the flying manure spreaders known as Canada geese.
The last time I cruised by to go salmon fishing, two companions said how awful it was that the foul mess was allowed to exist. Since one had been a police chief and the other had been a cabinet minister (and once head of the humane society), I found their views troubling.  They had been charter members of the same Establishment that allows a few activists to dictate to the rest of us about how we should handle our "wildlife."
Years ago, beaver were cutting down trees in Marie Curtis Park at the mouth of the Etobicoke Creek. My friend, Ray Biggart, was head of the Metro parks system at the time, and lamented to me (privately) how much he hated those blasted beavers and would like to blow them all away. But he had to answer to councillors, and they don't attack "wildlife" because they don't want heat from the animal lovers.
I realize that mine are supposedly not popular views - although I bet I would win a secret vote - but I have battle scars.
I was still flat on my back in hospital when son Brett reported in from opening the cottage. He said that the beaver had munched a few shrubs, which always happens, but also had cut down a lovely evergreen that son Mark and I had planted 15 years ago. The tree was dropped but barely chewed.
This makes a baker's dozen of mature trees that the current beavers and their awful ancestors have destroyed on my cottage property. I lost three beautiful silver birches in a clump that added hundreds of dollars to the value if I ever sold.
The latest beaver swim across the Trent River from a lodge on Nappan Island, which is not developed and covered with trees and shrubs, to munch on my trees.. Each fall I place wire cages and other protective wrappings around trunks but the beaver perservere.
Last year, in the ultimate insult, they tried to set up light housekeeping in my boathouse. I almost stepped on a large male when I was investigating the stench in one corner. It grumbled and waddled off to the water. The next day the smaller female was there but it managed to get to the water before I got to my gun safe. Too bad because they returned this summer. When a 40-year-old guest almost stepped on the big male in the boathouse, Gord confessed "I screamed like a girl." He took the picture of the beaver in the boathouse where it seems to sleep most nights. I guess I now own a version of a Travel Lodge.
One night I awoke to hear a really dumb beaver gnawing just outside my window at a giant poplar that is 19' in circumference. I yelled and it escaped to the water but didn't swim far as if taunting me. I didn't shoot it because I was afraid that if I missed, I would hit a nocturnal fisherman.
Then there was the skunk which tried to live in my garage in the city after digging up the front lawn, the squirrels that gnawed into my roof on two sides of my home to make nests, the raccoons that strew my garbage around if we're careless with lids, the raccoons that not only empty the bird feeders most nights at the cottage but then destroy them, and the porcupine that gnawed my cottage until I shot it.
Just look at how we fail in handling Canada geese. I love looking at a few of them, but not when dozens come up on my cottage lawn to shit on every inch. They're a filthy nuisance in any city park that has water. Margaret Wente of the Globe suggested years ago that we kill flocks and send the meat to food banks. I thought that was a great idea and printed recipes from a native cook book I bought in Midland.
Yet there are regular stories of protests in any city that dares try to reduce the flocks that seem to explode in size when given the slightest opportunity. One costly solution is collect a plane load and fly them into the wilderness. Why don't we just oil the eggs and turn the parents into food?
But there are those mouthy animal supporters - and backers of that dismal, rich PETA organization - who seem to feel guilty for just existing on the planet and say that the animals have been around longer than we have.  Don't eat fish or cows or pigs, and it's just possible an ear of corn has feelings too.
I prefer my "wildlife" to be out in the wilds, thank you very much, and I don't feel guilty one bit for saying I'm superior to them in the pyramid of life.

Friday, July 15, 2011



Once upon a time, Ontario Hydro was one of the provincial sacred cows, touted as the backbone of the  economy, boasted about in international conferences.
Oh sure there were farmers complaining about how much it cost per pole to electrify their farms. And newspapers occasionally ran stories of Hydro cutting off customers through error or handing out exorbitant bills when a meter went wonky.
Ontario Hydro and the municipal utilities that actually fed the electricity to consumers were fat-cat organizations staffed with executives lapping greedily at every last bit of cream in the public saucers. (Fred Gardiner, after whom the expressway is named, retired as the most important municipal politician in Canada but stayed on the Toronto power board because the part-time job gave him a limousine.)
Then came all the generation projects that skyrocketed in cost, particularly in the nuclear field where Hydro boasted about the world's best production until some pipes rusted out. The old question about nuclear power, whether it was safe, was replaced by concerns about whether it was affordable.
In 2011, our  Hydro bills are enormous. The billing envelope is stuffed with pamphlets urging us to scrap our beer fridges and singing the praises of the Smart Meter. They should put in apologies instead.
Ah yes, the Smart Meter! Hydro think they're really smart because it makes so much more money using a meter that has been found to be up to 50% inaccurate in some cities where it was introduced with lavish ad programs. I think the Smart Meters are dumb, dumb, dumb, and even the premier has acknowledged complaints that the Smart Meter can goof when it comes to overcharging during  low periods of use.
I don't really go along with all the Internet worry that the Smart Meter is a health hazard. But I do support those who say it's a menace to our wallet. The stories are endless about how bills have soared even when the users are only doing laundry at 3 a.m. on a holiday Sunday.
The idea is sound, but hardly new. When I bought my house in the 1960s,  Etobicoke Hydro had a electric switch on my fuse board which turned off electricity to my hot-water tank during peak power needs. It was never a problem and I got a reduced rate.
So I understand what Hydro is trying to do, to even out the demand so it can handle the peaks better, but I don't understand my resulting bills which have increased even though Mary has adjusted chores to use electricity most during off hours.
In fact, I think Hydro is cheating me and many Ontario residents and that promising to examine and to end this cheating would be a wonderful issue for the Ontario Tories. The McGuinty government has floundered into pledges to reduce electricity costs but when you add them all up, our Hydro costs go up and up and up.
I have a nice cottage on a point in the Trent River and a modest bunkie beside it which is seldom used. I wrote about the outright thievery of the Hydro bills on both buildings in a blog last Nov. 23 entitled Should Ontario Hydro Be Prosecuted.  As a minimum before a class action suit, either the Ombudsman should take action or the new Conservative government at Queen's Park should appoint a special arbitrator just to deal with the cheating and ineptitude. (One reason the Tories will win this fall's election is because of the McGuinty government failure to deal with the Hydro mess.)
In my blog, I detailed the mistakes that are so obvious, a Hydro chap on the phone floundered into incomprehensibility in a defense.
And it just festers each bill. I have just opened my last from the cottage. For three months - when I was in hospital - there was only 1 kWh used in the main cottage. Yet the bill is $86.88, which I submit is the highest charge in the world for 1 kWh. I used no power at all for the second cottage, the bunkie, but the charge is $75.30.
Up to two years ago, there was no monthly charge for a seasonal building where no electricity was used. That has now been waived in Hydro's drunken insistence on overcharging us. There is a minimum monthly charge of $23.98 even if you don't use the building for years.
Do you think that's fair, I asked a Hydro chap on the phone after my first two attempts to get through went into nothingness? Well, he said, everyone has to pay it. So if you steal from everyone, it's no longer theft but policy, I asked. And he didn't reply. But then, what could he say since he, as a symbolic representative of all Hydro employees, was like a blood-soaked murderer caught standing over  the victim still holding the bloody butcher knife.
Go get'em, Tim Hudak! Electrocute the gouging policies and smarten up the Smart Meters!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011



We take walking for granted. It's just something you do without thinking after those first baby steps.
I started to think about it a lot after six weeks in hospital. I could no longer walk, let alone stand.  When I teetered with two nurses supporting me, I was unable to shuffle for even centimetres. I wondered despairingly just what I was going to do to make my legs work after the muscles had withered.
It was so bad that I asked a nurse once just how long I was going to have weights strapped to my feet. Was it therapy? There are no weights, she said. Which depressed me even more.
 I was in awful limbo. I panted like a dog in August. I had only enough energy to work a converter. (And I often didn't since TV has become the great wasteland it was first called in 1961). Visitors, even my loyal family, exhausted me.
Yet there was improvement. Poisons weren't draining out of me by the pint. (I swear I didn't rip tubes  out, although that was the suspicion.)  I would be on medication for ascites, the accumulation of fluids, for weeks.  My pneumonia would linger, my bum ulcers needed months, and my MRSA hospital infection wasn't about to go away. In short I wasn't an ideal candidate for the next step of rehab.
I didn't sleep much but my dreams were about walking. I pushed to be free of St. Joseph's and placed where my health problems would be dealt with even as I got the legs working.
And so I ended at Runnymede where, ironically, I had been on the board since 1988 and wrote about its struggles to survive, let alone prosper into the lovely new building which replaced the century-old converted school. (I even headed its fund drive, and was terrible at it. )
When I attended the opening and staff Christmas party (and wrote about it last Dec. 14 in a blog titled Great Success Of Runnymede Health Care Centre) I never dreamed I would be a patient for 43 days.
Its past is that of chronic care where patients spend their final days, or even years. But with the new facility, president Connie Dejak wants more patients like me that can outlast problems and return home. The health ministry has just bought into that, announcing $6.27 million in annual operating funds to allow the use of all 200 beds.
A hospital is never going to be a spa, but it helps when most nurses and meals are great. The staff used to boast  just how good the food was. It still is. I was served meals of restaurant quality. Thank heavens! And it all came at a third of the cost of St. Joe's. But OHIP, which paid nothing of my  Runnymede bill, paid 27% of my St. Joe's bill.
Rehab was an ordeal where muscles failed at the simplest tasks with my therapist pushing until my body trembled. Tedious! I never managed more than two steps there without support, but their exercises led me to reclaim that precious gift.
The entire miserable 86 days in four hospitals convinced me that the patient, no matter how sick, and his family, have to pay attention to every pill and every test, or they can become victim. For example, my illness pushed me into diabetes, complete with insulin and the blood sugar vigil. Nurses would forget to bring me the needle and meter. Once I was given a needle filled with insulin quicker and stronger than my routine dose and saved myself.
Runnymede went to great trouble fighting my bum ulcers,  even giving me a bed with a compressor to keep it inflated like a giant air mattress. The first night, I swung my feet out to make my way laboriously to the bathroom. The compressor stopped, the bed edge collapsed, my feet skidded on the slick tile, and I crashed through a table and suspended myself on a TV arm. I couldn't find the call button so after a few seconds, I swore and crashed the rest of the way. They found me face-down on top of a wastepaper basket. It took four to pick me up, put me in that slippery bed and then wake me every hour in the head injury routine. The nurses revolted against the bed.
 I was being taken by a van hired by the hospital to St. Joe's to see an infectious disease specialist. The driver arrived late and needed directions. He tried to drop me and my wheelchair a block from the hospital in the middle of sidewalk construction. I waited two hours past my appointment to see the specialist who spent only a minute with me because the clinic was closing. The driver returned 80 minutes late after I borrowed a cleaner's cell phone to locate him.
He bounded down to the van until I pointed out the wheelchair ramp was steep and slippery from rain. He had to help me brake.  He returned sullenly and I think pushed rather than anchored me. I flew down the ramp bouncing off the concrete walls, grabbing at the rails. I figured desperately I would try to glance off the van fender rather than shoot across the lane into the metal fence that separated it from Queensway traffic. I  stopped just in time after bruising my hands.
He offered no apology as I returned to Runnymede two hours late, wet and shaking.
 I left for home the next day because after that experience that could have broken me, I figured I could handle anything the real world could deal me. Besides, Mary had installed $1,000 worth of railings and grab bars and I had three walkers and two canes.
I walked the length of a room two weeks later, to my outward joy and inner amazement.
I have survived.

Monday, July 11, 2011



For 50 years, the health fortunes of the Downings have revolved around St. Joseph's hospital. However, it didn't prepare me for 34 days there.
After Mary had three sons at St. Joe's, we routinely visited its emergency to have those active sons stitched and patched. They had cuts, burns, bumps, and then John Henry found "white candy" and dutifully, like a big brother, reached up into the crib to share the moth crystals with his brother Brett.
I used to feel strange that as a back-sliding Baptist, I was so often in a Catholic hospital where it was obvious the nuns who lived in a roof-top residence ran things. I remember the calls from Sister Mary Louise.  She would phone me as the Tely's city editor and tell me it was time to give St. Joe's more coverage.
And I obliged. She terrified me, just as she did nurses and doctors. I was afraid God would cast me into outer darkness if I didn't listen to one of his representatives on earth.
Yet times have changed. The good nuns are gone. So are the days when most staff were registered nurses who had survived the solid three-year course when they lived in residence attached to a hospital.
And the food has gone to hell too.
Not that I had the greatest appetite. A staple was sandwiches made by a Mississauga company and served in impenetrable containers. I couldn't open them with hospital utensils but found, after son Mark fetched my trusty Swiss army knife, it wasn't worth the trouble.
I was placed on a calorie watch because my muscles were shrinking. Staff tracked what I ate. I hid dubious bits in the milk carton and mashed the rest of the alleged food into a mound.
I had to be in a private room in acute care (($260 daily) but I was moved to semi-private ( $210.)  I agreed out of mercy for my insurance company although I was the one to suffer.  I had "interesting" companions, the first of whom mooed every minute. There was the man who screamed at his wife who was even louder. St. Joe's doesn't believe in separating sexes, apparently, so for too long, I shared with two ugly elderly ladies who talked Polish and Ukrainian non-stop, even at night.
Since the staff often forgot to pull curtains, I found them, and visiting girls, regarding me with interest during bed baths.
While they tried to figure out where to dump me, I was in an area that had an exotic flavour. Families surrounded each bed and seemed to be doing the nursing.  I yelled at a kid who wandered through the curtain to stare, and I was admonished by an attendant who said he needed the teenager to move me.
Mary hired a nice old woman who worked in a nursing home to sit with me some nights and  tend my adult diaper because pushing the buzzer at 3 a.m. never got a quick response and I would wait and wait in my filth.
I wondered if St. Joe's got by at night with only one RN and a handful of worn women who had taken eight month at a college. All I know is that I had an alarm triggered whenever one of the lines running into my arm wasn't working and it went off regularly with slow response. Once it rang for two hours.
I could hear other alarms too, because some "nurses" didn't know how to correct them. The quiet of the hospital was just a myth because there was some poor guy who screamed for a friend to come back and did so for hours every evening. You could just tell from the racket that fellow patients included too many mental patients who should never have been in an acute care hospital. Nurses tending them were true saints in the finest tradition of an old Catholic hospital.
One night I woke in the dark to stare at a mass beside the bed. Turned out to be a woman asking if I knew her son Bob. She left when one roommate screamed she would call police. Another night I woke to find a confused lady sitting on my legs.
I used to plot feverishly about how I would get rid of the paraphernalia chaining me to my bed and get to a toilet even if I had to crawl.  I wasn't ashamed of my diaper, just damn uncomfortable, and my bed sores blossomed evilly.
Even Premier Dalton McGuinty, who once worked in a nursing home turning patients and tending to bed sores, knows the rule that patients are turned every two hours. I never was. At the start there were tubes anchoring me, but the main reason was simple.  Even after shrinking, I was still 6'2" and 220 pounds. One nurse told another as I listened that she wasn't touching me because she would hurt her back. Another, confronting me in the wee hours,  never came back.  The first time I tried to stand, I was supported by two small nurses, one of whom confided that if I fell, there was nothing she could do.
The staff tried, because of my family's prodding, to fight the hospital curse of ulcers where bones come close to the skin with an "air" bed that shifted like a stripper's hips.  So I was "saved" from being covered by sores and just got three evil ones around my tail bone. (I'm trying to be positive. )
If I had to put a name to those who cared for me, I couldn't.  I seldom got the same nurse and it was a bewildering assortment of doctors who would ask a few questions and disappear.
The tests seemed endless. I would be uprooted and flipped to a gurney. I would be wheeled through endless corridors to be left waiting there for at least an hour before I was examined by experts and the machines they tended tersely as if they were feeding threshing machines.
And the costs mounted. Our "free" medicare isn't. We may be spending around 43% of the provincial budget on health but there are charges for anything more than scratching your nose. That's on top of "incidentals" where hospitals gouge for extra cash: $2.50 each half hour in parking, $75 a month for a phone, $60 a month for laundry (even if you don't use it) and so on through renting a crippled TV.
There was no breakdown on the St. Joe's bill as to what was paid by OHIP and what by my private insurance but the hospital wasn't bashful. It charged like a dentist. There was the "chemoshunt" ($168) that was taken out, and two weeks later put back ($168).  They did CTs of my thorax ($79.85), my abdomen ($102.65) and my pelvis ($102.65).  Then for something  called "perc abo drain super" they charged $288.30. (For that I would hope it was super.) They repeated the abdomen scan $102.65) and that "super" drain ($288.30) and many other tests and tubes.
Yet the Charleston hospital charged my travel insurance $275 for the CT scan of my thorax. It was $412 for the CT of my abdomen and similar higher charges for other tests.
St. Joe's was as good, and less costly. Yet I see from grumbling on the Internet that it's been called the worst hospital in Canada. That's going too far, and slurs all the decent staffers. But, upon reflection, it certainly is a candidate.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011



To put it kindly, my family regard my memories of my hospitalization just after I knocked on death's door, indeed tried to kick it down, with the tolerance usually shown toddlers.
Of course this is the same wife and three sons who consider my thousands of columns and store of anecdotes as being the fruit of an active imagination that may just, on occasion, give a story a little help.
Actually, if the truth will out, my memories of nine days in West Virginia in hospitals at Princeton and Charleston, my air ambulance trip home, and the early days of my St. Joseph's ordeal, are crippled.
When you drift in and out of fevered sleep, or cling to a contorted consciousness, you can't exactly give an accurate description of anything, let alone disagnoses, treatments and probes. Most of the time I had no idea of such fundamentals as what room I was in, or even what city.
And Mary, John Henry, Brett and Mark, loyally and with compassion, shielded me from any decision.
 Yet I was aware, when I wasn't asking questions of shadows at 3 a.m., that there was a great fight to get me airlifted. The family said I wanted to get home more than the insurance company did.
I wasn't sure what was going on except I heard there were no empty hospital beds in Toronto that could be found (if you can believe such nonsense) and no air ambulance was going anywhere until there was some hospital that would accept me.
I couldn't figure out whether my sons were threatening, cajoling or bribing to get me into Canada, indeed even whether the $12,000 cost was coming off my VISA card. When I tried to ask, the family told me to let them worry about it. For once, it was nice to leave major decisions to the family. And I knew I wasn't capable of adding two plus two, let alone negotiate a better lunch.
Finally, after endless delays over several days, I was loaded into yet another ambulance and bounced to an airport atop a hill, which makes it interesting for landing and takeoffs.
My sons drove my car back to Etobicoke, enjoying the rare opportunity to spend time together.  On this "road trip', they bought souvenir T-shirts and hit the historic sites, even visiting Punxsutawny Phil, the world's most famous groundhog.
And I was wooshed, as if strapped in a jet fighter, to Pearson. It was the second flight of the day for the air ambulance crew. I was anchored on a narrow stretcher, but still told my attendant I felt like I was falling out and after the three falls at the start of my misadventure, I feared that.
To reassure me, he tightened my belts and then shoved his forehead against my shoulder. It smelled to me as if he was fortified by a quart of rye but Mary insists I was smelling his antiseptic mask.
A fast trip and even faster trip through customs and immigration, considering I was almost nude and devoid of any identification like a passport. And then Toronto paramedics, the air ambulance crew, Mary and me made our way through late evening traffic to....surprise surprise...not to my expected destinations of Toronto General or Western but to St. Joseph's Medical Centre, which greeted us with hostility.
It was a scene that I will never forget even if my view was rather fevered. I seemed to be in the hospital lobby with a rude doctor on one side, the air crew on the other, and embarrassed paramedics at my feet. The doctor declared the hospital hadn't said it would accept me. The air ambulance crew hung tough since I represented a hefty pay day. And the paramedics shuffled. Finally the doctor agreed to admit me, saying with angry petulance this was always happening and he was fed up.
I was trying to say to him that I had three sons and two grandsons born at the hospital and that I was a scarred survivor of its emerg, beginning in the 1950s when an intern on his first morning trimmed too much flesh off a jagged cut, leaving me with a big scar for life.
Yet no one seemed interested in my ravings on anything. I was placed in lonely isolation in a room that looked like it was used for meetings. Isolation is policy for all patients flown in from the States. Ironically, I had been struck by the hospital infection known as MRSA, meaning a warning sign would be placed on the door of every room I was in for months.
The gowns and masks worn by everyone made me feel like an extra in a ghost movie. But at least I was near home, thanks to the expensive magic carpet of an air ambulance.

Sunday, July 3, 2011



When I stepped laboriously into my driveway the other day, it was the first time I had been home in five months. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
I felt like a great chunk of life had passed me by. The seasons had changed without me. Inside the remoteness of intensive care, the real world doesn't penetrate.
Mary and I departed for a Florida condo the last week of January. We had a grand time since the weather was superb after the chilly winters there in previous years.
Then came a pain on the right of my belly. A mystery pain! For decades I have travelled the world without a medical problem, but I do recall limping around Cairo and Jerusalem because of a savage attack of gout. (Before I knew of allopurinol.) Lately, I have felt crummy in Cuba for two days, and then the year before in Florida I hadn't felt great for a week.  But I returned home and had doctors inspect me from stem to stern.  So I felt cleared to go just about anywhere. Indeed, in January I had fished on a remote stretch of the Amazon in Brazil where the nearest doctor and hospital were hundreds of kilometres away.
Fortunately, my heart, which has been a bit of a problem for five years because of wonky electronics, beat away steadily and only a few times decided to goose in some extra beats.
I described all this to my Toronto doctor over the phone. He said I should find a doctor in the St. Petes Beach area where we rent the condo. But I felt better within a day. Indeed I swam lengths regularly in the medium-sized condo pool. Just days before I knocked on death's door, I swam 150 lengths with two breaks.
But my appetite disappeared along with my entire evacuation system, if you catch my drift.
So Mary and I left a few days early so it would be an easier drive to home and the inevitable round of medical probing.
We took the scenic route north, not I -75 to the west, because it is prettier and a bit shorter. Which is why we were going to spend the second night in a motel in a town in West Virginia. I had never heard of Princeton but now I will never forget.
I felt crummy so I thought a hot bath would help. Big mistake! It took Mary and me about half an hour to lever me out of the tub. Then I decided that even though I had only spent one night in a hospital in my entire life, I should go to the nearest one now.
I saw the white expanse of the bed behind me in a mirror so I backed up to have a rest before we went in search of a hospital. Another big mistake! There really was no bed so I fell flat on my back. Mary then dressed me in a nice track suit (which was cut off in the hospital) and we hobbled into the hall. There I folded up like I was in a Disney cartoon.
Mary went running and returned with two enormous black gentlemen - you would normally avoid such giants at midnight in a small-town hotel - and they awkwardly picked me up and carried me into the elevator. Since the Good Samaritans didn't know what they were doing, I fell face down.
I came to with two sets of paramedics prying at the elevator trying to get me out. Since I was wedged in a corner face-down and there was a chance I had broken my back, they moved with extreme care.
They took me to a small hospital where doctors said I needed a specialist...actually plenty of specialists. So in the morning I was taken by ambulance to the Charleston community hospital while some nice nurse volunteered to drive my car there so Mary could ride with me in the ambulance.(She laughed off our thanks, saying it was southern hospitality.)
That was the first of my many bumpy transfers from stretchers to a big board to beds where the staff sling you like a sack of flour and you pray you don't bounce off to the floor.
The experts determined that I was deathly sick from a variety of ailments. Countless guesstimates rather than real diagnosis! They guessed about gall bladder and even threw in typhoid because of my fishing in Brazil.  Perhaps cancer of the liver. I argued weakly that since I had fallen three times just getting to hospital,  it was possible the gouges on my liver were from that.
So they did a biopsy, or something, since so many tubes were stuck in me over the weeks, I lost track and felt like a glorified pin cushion. No cancer! I then was slid in and out of expensive tube scanners, after being tossed around going to and from the probing. At least they were sure I had pneumonia and  evil liquids sloshing around my gut.
Mary and my three sons had to cope with this since I was so out of it, I talked to machines in the middle of the night, thinking they were nurses.
Meanwhile, the Canadian travel insurance company wanted me to be evacuated by air ambulance to Toronto, far away from those incredible U.S. medical bills.
And that was only the start of the worst experience of my life.



I was carried into the first of four hospitals on, appropriately, April Fool's Day. The joke was on me. From health to death's door in two days. And for the first time since May, 1957, I haven't written anything for 106 days since they don't allow computers in intensive care.
My descent into the hell of several months of hospital left me unable to walk until a day ago, and holes over my tail bone which may take more months to heal. I never guessed that my leg muscles would turn into jelly after all those weeks imprisoned in a hospital bed, the first part in isolation and intensive care.
It left me with a profound respect for many nurses, and a hatred for some. I also think hospitals trying to go without registered nurses where possible, and playing games to keep them off permanent staff where they would get benefits, is a costly disgrace.
I think if  St. Joseph's had sufficient staff at night so I didn't have to lie in my own filth for 20 to 30 minutes, I wouldn't have ended up with three enormous bedsores which still are burrowing in my bum despite a range of enough medicine to kill a bull.
Turns out that everything you've heard about American hospital bills is absolutely true. The bills are still flying but it looks like they averaged $8,000 a day. Never leave home without travel insurance.
It also turns out that the "free" medicare of Ontario has cost me thousands of dollars despite my Canadian health plan covering enormous amounts.
Not exactly the way to lose 40 pounds. Unfortunately most of that came out of my muscles -  I still have a bit of a belly - which meant that up to several weeks ago, not only was I tethered by tubes to a bed, it took at least two nurses to get me out of that bed.
A hellish experience. One that almost killed me but was harder on my wife, Mary, and my three sons, John Henry, Brett and Mark. They came to West Virginia from their homes in China, California and Toronto because it looked like I was about to die due to enough poisons sloshing around my innards to keep a chest drain working overtime. There were other things wrong but no need to list them because you should already get the idea that I might have expired for several reasons.
 I'm going to tell you all about it in some blogs. I confided to a doctor at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto's westend that I wondered if I was going to write about it all because I didn't want to hurt good hospital staffs by relating bad experiences, even a couple where I could have died because of stupidity.
The doctor said I should write about it because there were so many problems with the health system today that any publicity would help.
Since my experiences included my family not being able to find a hospital in Toronto willing to accept me, saying they had no beds, I have plenty of indignation burning inside me where the gut pain used to be.
What's the use of having well-connected doctors and serving since 1988 on the board of a Toronto hospital when you spend extra costly days in a Charleston medical centre because all of the incredible medical facilities of Toronto are closed to you.
Something I will never forget or forgive.