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.

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