Quebec policy leaves Indigenous children anxious and alone on medical flights, doctors say

Children in northern Quebec in need of emergency care are flown are flown to Montreal without a family member, under a longstanding policy of the Quebec government. Doctors say it has to stop.

'Quite frankly, I find it very unfair,' mayor of Kuujjuaq says

Dr. Saleem Razack is one of the pediatricians calling on the Quebec government to change its policy. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

A young girl wakes up in the Montreal Children's Hospital, fearful and alone. She tries to escape and return home. 

A toddler, flown to the hospital without his parents from northern Quebec, falls from a bassinet in the emergency room.

These are among the harrowing stories cited by three Quebec pediatricians calling on the province to lift a policy that blocks family members from accompanying minors on air ambulance flights.

The Challenger jet used for medical evacuations isn't set up to take extra passengers. As a result, loved ones are required to take a commercial flight, and sometimes only arrive at the hospital the next day. 

"This has been a policy in place for decades," Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"I have to admit that I'm almost embarrassed that I didn't do anything earlier."

For Shaheen-Hussain, the turning point was this summer, when he treated a young boy from northern Quebec who had fallen off an ATV. 

Alone in the emergency room, the boy began to cry. Shaheen-Hussain worried he had suffered head trauma.

It was only after the hospital found an Inuktitut interpreter that they were able to understand why he was so upset: he missed his mother.

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)

In 2016, a total of 146 children were transported from the Cree Territory of James Bay to the Montreal Children's, while 146 were transported from Nunavik. Others are taken to Sainte-Justine Hospital or to hospitals in Quebec City.

It's unclear exactly how many of those were flown without a family member, but the number is considerable, the doctors say.

In preparing their case, Shaheen-Hussain said the doctors could find no other province that has similar restrictions in place.

Health minister cites security concerns

In an interview, Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said he understands the situation and "the emotion that comes with it, which is really reasonable and understandable."

However, he said, "there are also issues of security that are imposed by our Transport Ministry, and those are to be taken into consideration." 

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said he's sympathetic to the families concerned, but the policy is required for security reasons. (Radio-Canada)

There are only four sitting places on the Challenger and those must be reserved for medical personnel, he said. 

Barrette pointed out the province pays for the family member's commercial flight. Later Wednesday, Barrette told reporters he would work to see if commercial flights from northern Quebec could be better co-ordinated so that parents would be able to fly at the same time as their child. 

Policy brings with practical concerns

But the policy is not only painful for families and traumatizing for children, it also presents a host of more practical concerns, Shaheen-Hussain said.

Those include being able to understand a fearful young patient not comfortable in English, and getting parental consent before performing surgery.

"If ever the child does require surgery for whatever reason, we require consent, but it's hard to reach them because they are on the plane," he said.

"It's absurd in 2018 to have this situation that's ongoing."

Quebec uses a Challenger jet to transport passengers requiring medical attention. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Dr. Saleem Razack, another pediatrician who signed the letter, said the policy change would "correct a historical wrong." 

He pointed out the Children's at the new McGill University Health Centre has a room available to parents when a child is in intensive care. It's a shame it can't be used more often, he said.

Tunu Napartuk, the mayor of Kuujjuaq, the largest village in Nunavik, said the situation is "very painful to accept."

"The only way in and out of Nunavik is by plane. It's a two-hour flight direct from Kujjuaq to Montreal," he told Daybreak.

"Quite frankly, I find it very unfair."​

With files from Sudha Krishnan