Monday, March 7, 2011

Health care in Quebec Part 2: Lie down and suffer in the snow

By 5:20 this evening I was making my way to my car, having just disembarked from the train in my hometown of Roxboro. We'd been pounded by a sizable snowstorm that dumped at least 20 cm of snow on the ground. Most of that was on my car, so I gradually scraped the snow off my Honda. 

By the time I got to my back window, I noticed a woman crouched next to a woman lying on the ground in the parking lot. No one else approached them. As I got nearer, the woman lying on the ground was in obvious pain. It was only much later that I saw the extent of her injury by seeing her foot rest at a very awkward angle to the rest of her leg. The woman crouching next to her had just phoned for an ambulance. 5:22. The woman who came to help, Huguette, had been informed by the 911 operator that the ambulance was on its way.

Well, it wasn't. She called again after 20 minutes. The same assurance that it was coming. A few minutes later, the injured woman, Marie-Lynn, phoned as well, crying in pain. Huguette comforted her, I stood a watchful eye for the ambulance, another passenger on the following train offered some blankets from his car. All we needed was one damn ambulance.

Should we move her to the back seat of my car, so she would at a minimum not freeze lying on the ice and snow? The 911 operator advised us against that. But after a while - as in close to one hour - Marie-Lynn couldn't take the cold any longer so we lifted her into my car with only a few screams of agony. Still no flashing lights, no one but concerned passengers getting off the train asking Huguette and I the obvious, Did you call an ambulance? Yes, three times in fact.

After an hour her husband arrived, who ironically enough used to be an ambulance driver during the war in Lebanon. After he called 911 - our fourth call - he finally gave up and asked me to help her into his van so that he would take her to the hospital himself. A few more screams and she was settled in the van, exhausted and in agony.

It's easy to be critical of a health care system that provides free medical care. I understand that today was an exceptional day. However, anyone looking outside their window this morning could say with reasonable authority that today would be a bad day. As such, there was no excuse for emergency services like ambulances to be caught off guard.  The roads (and parking lots) are veritable skating rinks. By the time I left Marie-Lynn and her husband, one hour and twenty-five minutes had elapsed since our first phone call. If she had been alone with no one around her, what would have been her fate? Is it reasonable to accept a delay of nearly an hour and a half for an ambulance (assuming it even came by)?

No, I don't think so. The right to the highest attainable standard of health is a human right. While that doesn't mean that States must ensure that everyone is healthy all the time, it nonetheless has obligations to help realize that right. The right is defined in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It clearly specifies that States must take steps to achieve the full realization of, among other things, "the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness." Our health care system is mature enough for those conditions to have been created. Clearly, today's experience shows me that they do exist, but not with sufficient availability, and not for everyone.

I hope Marie-Lynn has a good night in the hospital. She's probably still in the waiting room. But at least she's there, thanks to her husband, the former ambulance driver.

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