Sunday, October 20, 2013


Anglo family with cancer-sick dad told to speak French in Hull hospital

An investigation is underway at the Hull hospital into an anglophone family's complaint about the treatment of their ailing father.

Photograph by: John Elliott , Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — An agitated orderly at the Hull hospital demanded that an anglophone family — still reeling from a cancer diagnosis — address him in French in the emergency ward because he was "Québécois" and "c'est le Quebec," the family has complained.

The story told by Ottawa businessman Steve Long, 47, is a harrowing tale about health care gone wrong and misguided language rights.

To make matters worse, the patient, John Gervais, 77 and a Canadian Navy veteran, is a longtime resident of Aylmer and, though too weak to speak, is fluently bilingual.

"We want him fired," Long said of the orderly. "We really do."

Long said his father-in-law was a robust man until about two months ago when he started to feel weak, lose his appetite and struggle with constant back pain. Many medical appointments ensued.

On Oct. 9, now in a frail state, he was taken to the emergency ward of the Hull hospital, one of three under the umbrella of the Centre de santé et de services sociaux de Gatineau.

For the next several days, a battery of tests was conducted, leading to a suspicion of lung or bone cancer. By Oct. 12, a Saturday, the older man could barely speak, couldn't stand on his own and needed morphine relief roughly every three hours. He was still in a curtained-off bed in emergency.

That night, on his way to the hospital, Long got a panicky call from his wife, who was at her dad's bedside.

An orderly in his 20s had been asked to help the patient use the portable commode. After barking "pee?" or "poo?" to the barely conscious man — much to the family's embarrassment — he apparently grew impatient. As he attempted to help Gervais out of bed, he spilled some liquid on his new shoes, causing him to snap at the family: "This is not a hotel."

According to a detailed account written by Long, a somewhat heated exchange followed, including an admonition from the man's wife, Iris, 75, an anglophone, that "this is a horrible way to treat a sick person."

Long arrived in time to hear the orderly loudly declare his "Québécois" status and to huffily remind the patient and family about the need to speak French.

"He didn't whisper it. Everybody in that emergency room heard him."

The family was already feeling vulnerable because of the worsening cancer diagnosis, said Long.

"It's a situation where you need someone to treat you with compassion. Instead he stormed off complaining about pee on his shoe." (It was apparently water.)

Long confronted the worker, then asked to speak to a supervisor. He was led to a room by the same orderly who, in the corridor, whispered things in French to him that Long took as a threat. "It was a very tense situation."

It was evident too, said Long, that the orderly both spoke and understood English.

The family has taken the matter up with the hospital's complaint department, which is headed by a kind of ombudsman. An investigation is underway and it may take as long as 45 days.

However, hospital spokesman Sylvain Dubé said there were witnesses to the verbal altercation in the emergency department and the employer is satisfied the conduct of the orderly was inappropriate.

"It's not a way to treat patients. You have to respect them."

He said the hospital's human resources department has also been alerted, though the man remains on duty. In the short-term, while Gervais remains a patient on another ward, the orderly is to be kept away from the family.

Dubé said there is no requirement for patients to communicate in French. Because there is such a large anglophone community in the Outaouais, service in English is commonplace, he added. He said there is rarely any difficulty in finding an English-speaking nurse, orderly or doctor.

Language issues are always contentious in Quebec but the proposed charter of values, which aims to control the wearing of religious garb in the public sector, certainly flavours any fresh flashpoint about cultural identity and "French-only" controversies.

As Dubé pointed out, there is already in Quebec a charter of the French language, which essentially guarantees that French is the official language in government and its institutions, including health care.

But patients to the Hull hospital speak many languages, from Spanish to Mandarin, he said, and staff do the best they can to accommodate. "The communication is so important. If you don't speak French, it's not your fault."

Long was told that the orderly may have been working long hours and come off "a bad day." Possibly. And his day of reckoning will come.

But the family is clearly owed a formal apology. This was shabby treatment in any language.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or email

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