British Columbia

Her husband was in hospital for 5 weeks. They stayed connected by phone but racked up a huge bill

Graham Boyle, 77, was a patient at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster for five weeks in November and December.

The couple asked for compassion from their phone company but said they felt brushed off

Kathleen Boyle was only permitted to visit her husband Graham once, to sign a form for a notary, while he was in the hospital. (Submitted by Dennis Boyle)

Graham Boyle, 77, was a patient at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster for five weeks in November and December.

During that time, he had two peripheral bypass surgeries on his legs.

His doctor described the physical impact of the surgery like being hit by a Mack truck. And that's exactly how Graham loved to tell the story when he chatted with his friends and family by phone, sitting in the hospital, unable to host visitors due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

Graham's cellphone was also how his wife Kathleen, 76, kept him company.

But the pair was unaware they were racking up far more minutes than their cell plans permitted — leaving them with a bill of $878.73.

"My heart started to beat very quickly. Initially, I thought it was a mistake," said Kathleen.

When she reached out to Fido for help, she says she was brushed off, raising a question about whether there's a place for compassion in big business.

After CBC News reached out to Fido, it offered to waive the couple's bill.

Connecting through their phones

"Once my husband went into the hospital and we were restricted through COVID for any type of visiting, it meant he was relying entirely on his phone, both text and minute," said Kathleen.

The couple's plan allowed both of them 500 minutes of talk time, which both of the Boyle's exceeded. Graham regaled his loved ones by phone with the tale of his surgeries and kept in touch with his wife. Meanwhile, Kathleen spoke with doctors, nurse practitioners, physiotherapists, and made the arrangements for an already planned house move.

"Graham was under a lot of medication, his mind was blurry, and he liked to tell his story," said Kathleen.  "And he exceeded his minutes by a heck of a lot. He just wasn't aware of it and to be honest I wasn't either."

Kathleen attempted to add more minutes to their plans but, instead, added extra data, not realizing they weren't the same thing.

Graham and Kathleen Boyle kept in touch over their phones while Graham was in the hospital without visitors for five weeks. (Submitted by Dennis Boyle)

When the bill arrived, Kathleen hoped she could reach an understanding with Fido after explaining the extenuating circumstances and considering the couple had never missed a payment or previously gone over their minutes.

But she said that wasn't the case. 

After multiple hours spent on the phone, she says she was told by Fido customer service agents and a supervisor that the bill was valid. They offered to take $50 off of Kathleen's bill and $100 off of Graham's, but said there was nothing else they could do.

Kathleen says she asked for "compassion in a situation that is an anomaly."

Normally, the couple pays just over $100 for their two cell plans.

The question isn't whether Kathleen and her husband were at fault — they recognize they were — but whether companies should consider compassion in their business models.

The case for understanding in business

According to Christie Stephenson, the executive director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the Sauder School of Business, the answer to the question is yes.

"Compassion is really a frontier for business to be considering, especially amid COVID-19," said Stephenson, and even more so, she says, for companies that have flourished due to COVID-19, like those in the telecom industry.

"The business case for compassion is not a hard one to make, especially in an extreme situation where a customer has found themselves in a difficult situation," she said.

"Businesses spend a lot of money trying to tell their story about how they're good citizens and how they treat stakeholders well and there can be expenditures that are potentially quite small but are very meaningful in a specific context," said Stephenson.

There have long been instances of businesses showing compassion quietly in the past, says Stephenson, adding there is now an opportunity for them to do so in a more systematic way by considering who their vulnerable customers are and how they might consider compassion in their actions.

Following a media request, Fido offered to waive the bill. The couple have also been switched to an unlimited talk and text phone plan.

"It's important we treat every customer with compassion and understanding," said the company in a statement. 

"We are continuing to work with the family directly to offer further assistance during this challenging time. We know how critical it is for our customers to stay connected," said Fido.