I don’t think you can truly say you know a city until you spend a weekend night in the emergency ward of its downtown hospital. My wife and I spent the Friday and Saturday night before Halloween in the emergency ward of Toronto Western Hospital last week. We arrived from Ottawa, tired and worried, around 11 pm on Friday. Immediately, we knew it was going to be a carnival of sorrow. There was Wonder Woman (still wearing her golden tiara) walking to the bathroom with her IV in tow. A heavy lady in a ballerina tutu making the same trek. More distant sounds included a nurse telling someone named James to aim for the middle of the bucket. “In the bucket James, in the bucket, in the bucket…” Lots of barfing sounds. But the star of the show was our neighbor, who came in handcuffed to his bed, escorted by six cops. I’d overheard he was well known to police as a crystal meth guy. He was unconscious for a while but when he started to come to, what should have been an interior monologue was yelled at ever-increasing volume. “Fuck….fuck…..fuckfuckfuck. Jesus, how did I get here? Fuck, my nose is broken. Fuuuuucccck”. This went on for hours. And he was less than six feet away from my dying father-in-law, separated only by a curtain and my preparedness to jump to his physical defense.
I don’t think any patient there thought that they’d end up there that night. No one was where they thought they should be. And yet here we all were.
The Canadian Health Care system has been very good to my family. We’ve gotten more than our money’s worth out of it and have encountered many health care workers who I can only describe as angels. But beyond the usual sadness of the situation, it broke my heart that my father-in-law, Order of Canada Member, Governor General’s Performing Arts Award recipient, philanthropist, and all the other stuff, lay there in this environment next to a crack-head on Halloween weekend and there was nothing we could do about it. We wanted to shield him from all of it but were unable. It was a helpless feeling. I suppose the lesson is that sickness is the great equalizer in this society of ours. No one looks wealthy or accomplished as they lay dying.