Quebec mother whose toddler son died says family should be allowed on air ambulances

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette now says he's looking into whether air ambulances can accommodate at least one parent, as pediatricians across Canada call on Quebec to change a policy that prevents family members from accompanying minors on medical flights.

Health minister seeks ways to make room for parent as pediatricians across Canada call for change in policy

Catherine Hudon couldn't accompany her two-year-old son Mattéo on an air ambulance in 2008 when he had to be airlifted to the Montreal Children's Hospital. By the time she arrived in Montreal on a commercial flight, Mattéo was brain dead. (Submitted by Catherine Hudon)

When Catherine Hudon's two-year-old son woke up one day in 2008 with a severe headache, doctors in the northern Quebec community where she was living dispatched the boy to Montreal for extensive tests.

She placed Mattéo Riopel on one of the Quebec government's medevac planes. A provincial government policy prevents family members from accompanying minors on air ambulance flights, so she took a commercial flight from Chisasibi to Montreal.

She left in the midst of a blizzard, and the journey took more than 10 hours. While she was in the air and unreachable, Mattéo's condition worsened. Doctors discovered a blood clot and decided to operate.

By the time Hudon arrived at the Montreal Children's Hospital, Mattéo was brain dead. He died a few days later.   

"I didn't have the chance to say goodbye," Hudon told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Monday. "I wasn't there for him. It's haunted me for years."

Catherine Hudon's two-year-old son Mattéo, left, was transported to the Montreal Children's Hospital from Chisasibi, a Cree community in northern Quebec. (Submitted by Catherine Hudon)

Hudon is adding her voice to a growing chorus critical of Quebec's policy that prevents family members from accompanying minors on air ambulance flights.

"I cried, and I told them that it wasn't acceptable," she said. "I felt this last moment with my child, somebody stole that."

Growing criticism 

On Monday, two leading Canadian pediatric associations urged the Quebec government to change its policy. Last month, a group of Montreal pediatricians did the same. 

"Separating a child from their parent when they are frightened, hurt or when they may be at risk of dying is cruel," said Dr. Catherine Farrell, president-elect of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and a pediatric intensivist at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital.

"For the parent, being separated from their child is stressful, anxiety-producing, but it also deprives them of the opportunity to have input into the decisions that are being made about their child's care," she added.

In a joint letter to Quebec's ministers of health and transportation, the CPS and the Quebec Association of Pediatricians  pointed out that elsewhere in Canada it is standard practice to allow parents onto the air ambulance with their child for urgent transfers.

Dr. Laurence Alix-Séguin, a Sainte-Justine Hospital pediatrician who specializes in pediatric transport, has worked in Australia and France and says there, too, having parents accompany their children on medevacs is not just beneficial: it's the norm.

"In other countries, like in the rest of Canada, it's common that we will have parents with us when we transport children, either in an airplane or in a helicopter," Alix-Séguin said.

Barrette says team will look for space

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette has said in the past that the policy is necessary because the Challenger jet used for medical evacuations isn't set up to accommodate extra passengers.

Today, however, in response to the barrage of criticism, Barrette said his team is working on finding ways to make room on the air ambulance planes so that "we can at least sit one parent. At least one."

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said in January that the Challenger jet used for medical emergencies has only enough space for the patient and medical team. (Radio-Canada)

But Hudon believes the decision to bar parents from the planes has less to with practicality than personality.

"It wasn't a question of space, it was more that the Challenger [crew] didn't want to manage the anxiety of the parent," she said. "They don't want to deal with the parents in the plane."

Pediatric experts, though, maintain that having a parent accompany their child can improve the quality of care the child receives, while also easing the burden of the medical team.

"Not having a parent to interact with to gain info about the child's underlying health care status — vaccines, immunizations, allergies — some of that may be documented in their chart, and some of that may not be documented," said Farrell.

"We are expected to make decisions unilaterally when the parents are not there."

Indigenous communities disproportionately affected

In 2016, a total of 146 children were transported from the Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory to the Montreal Children's, while another 146 were transported from the Inuit territory of Nunavik in northern Quebec.

An unknown number of other children were taken to Sainte-Justine Hospital or to hospitals in Quebec City.

The Challenger 601 is used to transport patients from northern Quebec. Doctors say children should be permitted to be accompanied by a parent on the trip. (Government of Quebec)

The joint letter argues the no-family policy disproportionately affects children and parents from First Nations and Inuit communities. 

"This is particularly crucial in Indigenous communities, where families have experienced intergenerational trauma from the forced removal of children during the residential school system and during the tuberculosis epidemic," Radha Jetty, chair of the CPS First Nations, Inuit and Métis health committee, said in a statement.

With files from CBC's Quebec AM and Daybreak