I’ve been spending too much time lately at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. As I write, my elderly father has been a patient there for almost three weeks and that has kept me and my siblings busy.
Hospitals are unique places. Sometimes making no sense and sometimes all the sense in the world. Hospitals are necessary evils that run on their own steam, their own rhythm. So many people work in a big hospital, so many more pass through.
People from every corner of the world all share something in common whether employee, patient, or visitor. They all get the full hospital experience from the moment they and their family members first arrive looking for a parking space.
I can bet that all big city hospitals in Canada have parking issues. A parking spot nearby is hard to find and, when you do find one, there is a parking meter to feed – well, how many toonies does it take to spend a few hours in the hospital? “Too many toonies” is the name of that song.
Hospital parking lots cost $20 to $25 per day. At the end of the week, that adds up to a significant, if unexpected expenditure. The idea of paying a ransom in parking to visit a loved one in the hospital is sad enough, but it is even sadder when you bring yourself to a medical appointment. Too bad if you’re late getting back to your car before the meter expires. Parking tickets can be seen on many cars when you exit the hospital.
In Montreal, parking meters are in effect until 9 pm. Just before 9 o’clock, the parking constables are out there writing tickets as they squeeze the last lemon before parking becomes free – so unfair, so unreasonable.
The most precious commodities in a hospital are soft toilet paper and Kleenex. It is hard to fathom that the Jewish General Hospital does not have Kleenex to give to patients. It must be too expensive, which would explain why the toilet paper for patients is a cross between cardboard and sandpaper.
While everyone has emergency room horror stories to tell, the gurneys in the hallways say it loud and clear. It can take up to 15 hours in Montreal emergency rooms to be seen. My father only waited five-and-a-half hours. It must have been a quiet night.
The emergency room experience can be cruel as you wait your turn. The trick to be seen quickly is to say you have chest pains. If you are not bleeding and you didn’t say you have chest pains, then you just have to wait until that moment arrives when there is nothing more important for the medical personnel to do. When there is nothing more important than caring for you.
First, a nurse sees you to assess the problem and then, hours later, you finally see a doctor. Emergency room doctors are juggling lots of patients and time is precious. Be articulate, be polite and don’t complain about how long you waited. Not complaining will serve you well. Hospitals are places where getting upset or impatient almost guarantees an instant downward tilt in the relationship.
If you are told you will be taken upstairs, as a patient, you know a room doesn’t become available just because you need it. Emergency rooms become short-term way stations, an ugly term I acknowledge, but it fits.
Once upstairs, you get a full dose of the feel and smell of a hospital. It feels kind of grimy and stale and, in the summer heat, it smells worse. After all, it is not a Hilton Hotel, and it’s not supposed to be. But isn’t it supposed to be more than it is? In our worse dreams, could we have ever thought a hospital would be so uncomfortable in terms of basic privacy and dignity?
But there is one thing about this hospital I have spent too much time in that makes it better: the people – so many kind-hearted people. In the misery, and there is a lot of that, most people are nevertheless compassionate. Patients, visitors and the professionals all share the same perspective. This is one terrible place, so let’s try to elevate it.
A simple smile, a gesture of understanding, even eye contact can actually turn a day around.