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6 months after coma, man still in ICU while he waits for place to live

Paul Benson, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years, illustrates the logjam happening in many Ontario hospitals. While he waits for long-term care, he hasn't stopped trying to live the fullest life possible.

Paul Benson is caught in a health system backlog and is making the most of life in hospital

Paul Benson is living in the ICU at Joseph Brant hospital while he waits for a place to become available in a long-term care home that can support a ventilator. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Six months ago, Paul Benson inhaled a piece of food into his lungs and was found unresponsive at his long-term care home in Burlington.

Paramedics rushed him to nearby Jo Brant Hospital, where he spent a week and a half in a coma.

Then, one day in April, he woke up.

"Welcome back, Paul," he heard a nurse say.

Paul Benson, 66, lives in the Joseph Brant hospital’s brand-new, sunny intensive care unit. 1:55

Now Benson, 66, lives in the hospital's brand-new, sunny intensive care unit. He's on wait lists for two long-term care homes in Hamilton and Toronto that can care for someone who uses a ventilator to breathe.

Benson, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years, illustrates the logjam happening in many Ontario hospitals.

I'm concerned that I'm occupying a bed that somebody else may need.- Paul Benson

While he's thankful for it, he doesn't need quite the level of care he's receiving in the ICU.

But there's nowhere for him to go at the moment.

"I'm concerned that I'm occupying a bed that somebody else may need," he said. "I'm receiving splendid care, but I can manage in a different environment. I am lucky to be here … but I am here at, potentially, the expense of somebody else."

'The care they really need outside the hospital setting'

Wait times for patients admitted through emergency rooms in Ontario hospitals hit their highest level this summer since the province started keeping track nine years ago.

The umbrella organization representing the province's hospital forecast a "real capacity crisis" for the coming winter.

Paul Benson breathes with the help of a ventilator after spending a week in a coma in April. He's working on a Master's degree while he receives care at Joseph Brant hospital in Burlington. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Ontario Hospital Association president Anthony Dale connected the problem last month to long wait lists across the health "continuum," which would include long-term care beds like the one Benson is waiting for.

"The root of today's capacity challenge is that far too many frail elderly patients can't get access to the care they really need outside the hospital setting," Dale said.

When there's no room at long-term care homes, patients end up staying in hospital wards longer than is necessary. When hospital beds are full, that causes backups in emergency rooms.

When emergency rooms are over-capacity, it takes longer for paramedics to offload the patients they bring in by ambulance, leading to code zero events where no ambulances are available to respond to 9-1-1 calls. 

While he waits, Benson is loving the chance to be in one of the hospital's new rooms. He appeared in a video produced by the hospital to highlight the new building.

And he hasn't stopped dreaming, living the fullest life he can, even from a hospital room.

He's working on a master's degree in education – controlling a mouse with his head movements and typing using voice recognition software. 

Some of the medical monitors in Benson's room. (Kelly Bennett)

He's using every opportunity he gets – even putting a bug in Premier Kathleen Wynne's ear when he met her last week – to try to advocate for the people he met in long-term care.

'Why would they want to learn something new at their age?'

Benson said a number of the people he's met in long-term care have projects they want to work on, wondering what capacity technology might have to help them live fuller lives.

Benson uses technology that recognizes his head movements to move a mouse, and his voice to type, as he works on a Master's degree in distance learning. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"There's a general tendency to think, 'Oh, they're past that,'" Benson said. "'Why would they want to learn something at their age?'"

But internet access is expensive for long-term care patients – cutting them off from even just Facebook, email, or chances to video chat with their family members. Benson says there should be free wireless internet for patients in long-term care.

"Unless you're in the situation, you wouldn't know," Benson said. "My eyes have been opened to a lot of things over the last couple of years."

'I've got extra time'

Though diagnosed in 1976 with multiple sclerosis, he had a long remission for more than 17 years that allowed him to develop a career in IT and move to Canada from Great Britain.

He was able to drive until 2011.

As his condition progressed, he moved from independent living in a two-storey townhouse to a single story, then to assisted living, then to long-term care.

Benson is in an ICU room in a new tower at Jo Brant that opened officially in August. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

It wasn't until he choked on that meal that had to start breathing with the assistance of a ventilator.

But he approaches it all with the spirit of a new adventure, as an "apprenticeship" in living with and navigating each new challenge.  

"At each stage, there's a lot to learn and a lot to discover," he said.

"I've got extra time to devote to what I think I'm here to do. So I consider myself very lucky." 

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.