The Myth of Montreal’s Bilingual Hospitals
Dying generally sucks, but you do get a few perks: things like a 24h VIP direct line to a nurse you can call when weird things start happening to your mother’s cancer-ridden body.
The thing is, at night the system is rigged up so that you have to go through the Montreal General Hospital’s internal operator to get to the nurse. Not the public operator used to communicating with the taxpaying public. The internal switchboard lady.
Dispatch. What service?
This being one of Montreal’s “bilingual” hospital, in-house communications are in English. It takes a few seconds for the operator to switch gears into French and a little bit longer for her to figure out French acronyms and terminology.
Selles? Selles? Shit! What are selles?
Eventually I get the nurse on the phone. The situation I’m describing is kind of gross and she recommends I take my mom to the emergency.
My mother used to be a patient of the Montreal Neurological Hospital’s Docteur Olivier, the French-speaking successor to the legendary Dr. Wilder Penfield who revolutionized brain science, and the living proof that Montreal’s English hospitals are, according to the Montreal Gazette, nothing but a “mischievous myth”.
“There are French ones and there are bilingual ones”, they explained after former Québec Prime Minister Jacques Parizeau was admitted to the Jewish General Hospital last week. “Parizeau is getting that care in French – or, at least he is if that’s what he wants. Parizeau’s English is so fluently mellifluous he might just choose to use it.”
While I’m sure the staff at the Jewish will avoid the diplomatic faux pas of addressing Monsieur Parizeau in English, those of us who haven’t managed to come as close to breaking up Canada don’t quite receive the same level of consideration.
When my mother’s name was moved from the interesting cases list to the basket cases list, Dr. Olivier passed her file on to a Czech doctor who didn’t speak a word of French. He greeted every patient in the clinic hallway with a single question:
Do you speak English?
Only about 40% of patients in Montreal’s bilingual hospitals are English-speaking so the doctor spent the first ten minutes of every second consultation sighing loudly as he fished around for an idle nurse, orderly or first year student who could translate his patients for him. I got on his good side by setting aside my modest expectation that in 2009 my mother was entitled to receive health care in French in Québec.
The Neuro doesn’t have an emergency ward so that night I take her across the street to the Royal Victoria Hospital, named for the glorious British Queen who spoke German, English, French and Hindustani. A doctor walks into our examining room wearing a hijab. This is English Montreal, a tolerant, multicultural community where people value and respect each others cultures…
Do you speak English?
Really? Are you sure?
The doctor tells me that she can take a look at my mother now or that we can wait. Mother’s been writhing in pain for about seven hours now, so I take her hand and tell her softly that it’s her turn to be bilingual.
Because my family refuses to live in Saguenay or Rosemont where we belong, we, like 1.7 million Québécois from Côte-des-Neiges to Val-d’Or — people like Jacques Parizeau, Yves Michaud, Pauline Marois, Éric Lapointe and the AngryFrenchMe — have been designated as wards of the McGill University Hospital Center.
Every single word of every single medical file of every single member of my family is written entirely in English.
Twenty-five percent of the province of Québec’s health care is administered by a medical establishment that doesn’t require it’s doctors to learn a single word of the language spoken by the majority of their patients. The Charest government just gave McGill 3.6 billion dollars, half of the tax dollars earmarked for the construction of two university hospitals in Montréal.
No need to worry, according to The Gazette. For that price they’ll even care for separatists. Me and my mom’s can be assured that Montreal’s bilingual hospitals “are open to all, regardless of language, creed, ethnicity, or political conviction.”
The day shift doctor who showed up in the morning didn’t speak French either. I don’t speak French I’m from Brazil, he told me, almost proud of himself.
I made him speak to me in Spanish. He got the point and dropped the grin.
(Now let’s have a moment of silence for the millions of Mexican-Americans who don’t have access to health care in their own language. Aren’t you just fucking proud to be Canadian right now?)
That night was a hard one, but it wasn’t the toughest yet. I spent many other long nights at the Royal Vic and the Montreal General Hospital with my mother. Tired, scared and confused by the quick succession of unfamiliar faces coming and going around her, my mother started to speak to me in English in those last few weeks of her life.
My father had started to do the same thing in the last days of his life. So did my grand-mother. So did my grand-father.
Anyone still wondering why I’m angry?