No. 6 – My First Visit to a Canadian Hospital

Years ago back when we still lived in Oregon (and were childless and carefree) my wife and I traveled to Montreal for a bit of a vacation and to visit her side of the family. She was pregnant with our first at the time, and I think in that safe window of pregnancy where they let you get on a plane. Second trimester?

Something like that.

Well about halfway through our vacation, she developed a serious gallstone problem (though we were unaware that that was what it was until it was diagnosed as such). She started feeling pain one evening and slowly it got worse and worse until finally we called it and headed to the hospital. Don’t forget that we were on a trip in Canada, so we’re dealing with socialist medicine, not the same as in the US. I spent a few years in college in Canada so I knew a bit of what going to the doctor was like (picture it like going the DMV and you’re close).

But I had never been in a real Canadian hospital before.


The first place you go, regardless of your condition, is the Triage Room. I suppose if you roll up in an ambulance they triage you on the way and you get to skip it, but if you foolishly drive yourself to the hospital and walk in the front door, you to go triage.

Triage was a small white room, chairs along the walls and a single nurse (guard?) at a desk in the center. I’m sure their job description says something about ‘helping to assess and prioritize patients as they enter the ER’ but in reality their job is to get cussed out by people who are either dying or believe they are dying. This room was our first home, we stayed there for about 40 minutes before we were downgraded to the waiting room.

I have never been happier to be told to go to the waiting room.

STAGE TWO: Waiting Room

The waiting room was a much more familiar experience, if a little run-down looking. The folks waiting in there with us were also a little more run-down looking, as was to be expected, since all of them had been, at some point, subjected to the horrors of the triage room.

I suspect we looked a little run-down ourselves.

We waited for three hours.


Finally someone called our names and we got to pass through the swinging doors into the actual hospital. It felt like we had been waiting for our turn to be airlifted to safety off of a slowly sinking cruise ship.

Keep in mind that we were now about four hours into being there,  probably eight hours into my wife being doubled over in pain. She spent most of those eight hours practicing her birthing pain management techniques several months ahead of when she thought she might need them.

They put her in a gown, in a bed, and wheeled her and bed into what can only be described as a tangent off of the main hall. Picture a short hallway that goes nowhere and has a curtain that you can pull to give it some privacy. It was like a construction error that they adopted as a mini-room to stash people, a nook.

We were told that she would receive an ultrasound to determine what was wrong. We though perhaps that because she was pregnant, we were, by some standard, being fast-tracked. After all, something serious could be wrong, with the baby, with the mother, complications, etc. Remember that at this point we didn’t know what was wrong.

We waited five hours for the ultrasound.

All this time was spent in the nook. Outside, past the curtain, a half a dozen other hospital beds lined the wall of the hallway, most of which had moaning and/or crying people in them. We started to value the nook, the modicum of privacy it afforded, but really we didn’t know how good we had it.

Once they finally took us to do the ultrasound and brought us back, we discovered that someone else had moved into our nook! So my wife’s bed was pushed up against the wall. Now we were just like the others left in the hall, like the ones we had pitied before from the privacy of the glorious nook.

STAGE FOUR: The Hallway

After the loss of the nook, things really took a turn for the worse. The night shift crew came on, making the day time crew look like saints. Apparently the only thing worse than being a nurse in the Quebec hospital system is being put on night shift. Or perhaps that’s where they send you if you’re naughty. Whatever the reason, to say that they were unhelpful and even unfriendly is putting it lightly.

After several hours more it was clear that we were going to be there a while.  I had been standing or leaning against the wall, or trying to casually sit on the edge of my wife’s bed for about eight hours now. Actually sitting on her bed or the floor was frowned upon, and you can only casually lean against stuff for so many hours before needing to be hospitalized yourself.

My wife was given some painkillers to afford her some measure of relief and seemed ready and able to sleep. I, however, was not going to be able to sleep standing up and was forced to consider leaving her there alone for the night and coming back in the morning.

I did not feel great about this.

You see, my wife lacked a pillow. Any pillow. And as you know, trying to sleep while pregnant usually requires thousands and thousands of pillows. Five or six months out of every pregnancy, husbands have dreams of cuddling with the Michelin Man. But my wife lacked even a single pillow. Simple logic in hospital administration would lead you to believe that there would be one pillow, at least, available to each bed / patient.

However attempting to ask a night crew nurse for a pillow was a fool’s errand, and only marked us as trouble makers. “There are no pillows” we were told. Obviously some other pregnant woman in the hospital ER was making herself a little fort to live in with all those missing pillows, pillows she acquired from the night crew nurses by trading packs of cigarettes or other favors. Not being a smokers, it seemed that we were without the necessary currency to acquire a pillow.

It was also about this time that I noticed the signs on the walls:


I spent a very long time staring at those signs, trying to decipher their meaning. Obviously they were written for the staff, but what did they imply? I thought at first that these were posted as a reminder for the staff not to hurt the patients, like if a nurse was pistol-whipping a patient and just happened to look up and notice the sign and think to themselves, “Oh right, violence is NOT a part of the job…” But I rejected this theory as too ridiculous* and settled on the idea that the staff had to be reminded not to take abuse from patients, that they should respect themselves, something positive like that.

*A week or so later, a local friend in Montreal corrected me and said that my first theory was indeed correct.  Apparently some hospital staff had been roughing up patients so they posted the signs. It was not made clear to me if the signs had done any good.

So after the whole pillow incident with the staff I was all the more reluctant to leave my wife there alone. But again there didn’t seem to be any reasonable alternatives and she commanded me to leave, promising me she would be OK.  She had one thin blanket so I left my coat on her and went back to where we were staying to sleep a few hours.

I came back in the morning to find her alive but very much in the same position. That day is a bit of a blur but I remember the following:

1. Foolishly buying a muffin to eat in the hospital, only to discover that it was kosher, and hence, inedible. Apparently it had no dairy in it or something, and I have some kind of condition that is basically the opposite of being lactose intolerant. If if DON’T have milk in my food, or cream, or cheese, something dairy, I have trouble eating it.

2. At some point a nurse attached some sort of penicillin-related drug to my wife’s IV bag but didn’t turn the little spigot, which is for the best because my wife is deathly allergic to penicillin and I’m pretty sure having it pumped directly into her bloodstream would have been bad. Luckily a doctor came by to check on her and just about had a baby of his own when he checked her wristband for allergies against what she was being given. He was our hero. Also he was expensive. I think those five minutes he was with us in the hallway he billed us $120. But then he probably saved her life by foiling what was obviously a hit planned by the night crew, still upset about the pillow request.

Eventually by the end of the second day, it was explained to us that she was stable but that she would have to stay a second night for observation. It was also explained to her that she could not, under any circumstances, eat anything with fat in it. Fat would cause her gallbladder to do its job in sending bile into the stomach to help digest the fat, and in all likelihood the stones would create a new blockage and she’d probably need surgery, and we could loose the baby.

No more fat, got it.

STAGE FIVE: Private Room

Things were looking up. My wife was transferred out of the hallway into a real hospital room, and she had as many pillows as she wanted. I think it was a shared room but the other person was very very old and / or possibly dead. I don’t remember them at all.

Our new focus was no longer pain management, it was fat avoidance. My wife was very, very hungry and, for whatever reason, LOVES hospital food. Weird, I know. But I think it has to do with the fact that she isn’t cooking it. She just likes being pampered, by anyone, regardless of the quality.

And there was the fact that they had not let her eat anything the entire time she had been there, which at this point was something like 30 hours, so she was starving.

We were EXPLICIT with our nurse-person about communicating the need for a special fat-free meal to the central kitchen. My wife’s only prescription at this point was to rest and avoid fat, surely the nurses and staff who were now charged with caring for her could work with this one rule. But then the meal that arrived was obviously loaded with fats.

Enough fats to send her to surgery and kill our unborn child.

After much back and forth it became clear that they didn’t really have any food that was fat free. She nibbled on what she could but resigned herself to being hungry.

The night was uneventful, and then in the morning the hospital administration finally seemed to realize that we were not residents of Canada, and did not have any provincial health insurance cards. Suddenly we were an enormous liability and they wanted something like four thousand dollars ASAP. We were in the process of refinancing our home back in Oregon and our broker had given us explicit instructions not to put ANYTHING on our credit cards until the deal was over.

Then I remembered our travel insurance, which had coverage for this kind of thing, and after just one phone call they had everything fixed.  It was amazing. (I wish I had some kind of affiliate link to drop in here because we would be millionaires after just a few days of promoting this company.  Can’t even remember their name…)

Finally they discharged us, exhausted, starving, and emotionally drained. Fifty-three hours total time spent in the Canadian hospital system. We ended up cutting our vacation short and going home early, just to avoid having to go to the hospital in Canada again, should she have another episode.

My wife managed to avoid eating more than six grams of fat at any one sitting for most of the rest of her pregnancy. JambaJuice was a life-saver. Just try and find another food outlet that offers 600 calories with less than six grams of fat in one serving?…  (insert million-dollar affiliate link here!).

The birth ended up being by C-Section because our daughter was breech. Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving, she got careless and ate something that set off her gallstones again and this time, she had to have surgery to have it out, only three weeks after having had a C-section!  She was pretty cut up for a while.

Let’s just say I got really, really good at changing diapers.

Editor’s Note – Now we live in Canada full-time so we can say that most of the medical care here is excellent and that the doctors, nurses, and hospitals do a great job.  However to be fair, we’ve avoided going back to that particular hospital, given our legitimate fears that forged “Do Not Resuscitate” paperwork may still be on file.



“…The next day I (and a house guest) were made to sniff the contents of the pitcher.  It did not smell good, yet I suspected that I would eventually be, in some way, eating the contents of that pitcher…”