Quebec mother, pediatric doctor renew calls for parents to accompany kids on medevac planes

Nearly two months after Health Minister Gaetan Barrette announced that parents would be allowed to stay with their kids on air ambulances, children in Quebec's North are still being separated from their families and forced to travel to hospitals alone.

Push comes nearly 3 months after health minister announced the policy would change

Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain is a Montreal pediatric emergency physician and assistant professor at McGill University's Faculty of Medicine. He was one of the co-founders of the #aHand2Hold campaign. (Submitted by MUHC)

Nearly three months after Health Minister Gaetan Barrette announced that parents would be allowed to stay with their kids on air ambulances, children in Quebec's North are still being forced to travel to hospitals alone.

Last month, Ann Kelly's four-year-old son Vincent swallowed something that got lodged in his larynx, and needed to be sent from Kuujjuaq to Montreal for treatment.

"He said, 'It's stuck.' And I said, 'What's stuck?' And he said, 'The penny.' I said 'Oh no.' I knew what it was. He had swallowed a dollar."

She took Vincent to the local emergency and they confirmed that while the dollar wasn't blocking his airway, they would have to send him to a hospital to get it out.

Ann Kelly's son Vincent swallowed a dollar in April and had to be transported to Montreal. (Submitted by Ann Kelly)

After waiting more than six hours for a medevac plane, Kelly was told that she wouldn't be allowed to go on with her son.

"I was shocked," she told CBC's Homerun. "He's four-and-a-half years old. He can't travel alone."

She tried to comfort him, saying she'd be with him as soon as she could, but he was distraught.

"He cried all the way to Montreal," said Kelly. "I was panicked all night long, all the next day."

She said that while Vincent recovered physically, he's still upset by what happened.

No improvement

Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain is one of the doctors who has been pushing the government to change its policy.

Shaheen-Hussain, a pediatric emergency physician at the Montreal Children's Hospital, said this is hardly the first time calls have been made for the province to update the decades-old rules.

"Sadly, Ann's story is not unique," he said.

He said in talking with colleagues at the Children's and at the Ste-Justine hospital, he hasn't seen any improvement in the months since Barrette promised change.

"I expected to have at least heard of one kid who would have had their parents or caregiver accompany them by now. That's not the case."

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)

He called the policy discriminatory, saying that while other provinces have updated their policy to allow parents, Quebec has dragged its feet.

"The parents or caregiver — their role and responsibility is to advocate for their child — and here these parents are being structurally prevented from doing that."

Shaheen-Hussain told CBC that the policy can have adverse effects on a child's mental and physical health.

"They're alone, they're torn away from their family, they're scared," he said. "In many cases, these kids don't speak English or French ... We can't get a good history, we don't know if they have allergies."

While he remains hopeful that this change will come into effect soon, Shaheen-Hussain says the update is "long-overdue."

Health Ministry working on it

In response to this, the Quebec Health Ministry told CBC in an email that "work is ongoing when it comes to putting this new policy in place."

The government says it needs to reconfigure some of the older planes and train medevac staff.

"It's important to understand that when it comes to emergency air transport, all precautions must be taken with the goal of reducing risk," read the statement.

In all, 576 minors were airlifted from 2017-2018, and of those, only 189 were accompanied by a parent.

With files from CBC Homerun, Melissa Fundira