​Transport World: Have chart, will travel

When someone you love gets sick, everything stops. In one instant your world changes from juggling a million different things to a laser-like focus on just one thing, one person.

Homerun host Sue Smith and her mum go hospital-hopping in a blue gown and tuque

All dressed up and ready to go. Sue Smith, left, and her mom, Caroline Cooper, wait to be picked up by adapted transport. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Sue Smith is the host of Homerun on CBC Radio One. In December, her mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her brain and elsewhere in her body.

This is the second in a series of essays about the experience.

When someone you love gets sick, everything stops. In one instant your world changes from juggling a million different things to a laser-like focus on just one thing, one person.

Literally hours and days just sitting and stroking her hand, refreshing the water on the cloth on her head, listening to the beep beep beep of the monitors, looking for signs that everything is going to be alright.

But gradually the world returns. Only it's a different world.

Instead of work and your house and your kids and your friends, it's ICU and tests and doctors and nurses. You live at the hospital and become familiar with the routines. What time do the shifts change, when does that nice lady bring the meals, when is a good time to take a walk? It's Thursday, the physio comes today! And of course waiting for the doctor — will he come before his surgeries or later tonight? Will he have the results?

This became our entire world and Mum's corner room at the Neuro became our home for the several weeks that Mum was in the hospital.

And then there is "Transport World" — a world I never really knew existed but for a few weeks become a central part of our lives.

Welcome to 'Transport World'

A brief history, because nothing is ever simple in Quebec, least of all health care.

Back in 2015, all the English hospitals in Montreal were to merge together at the MUHC Glen site in the new "superhospital." The vision was one central location for health care where all the services would be close together.

If you were at one hospital and needed a test at another, you could simply be wheeled in your bed or chair down the corridor.

Simple. Easy. Efficient.

Services have been centralized. The only problem is, for various reasons, some of these institutions did not end up moving.

The Montreal Neurological Institute is one of them. It's still on its perch on the mountain, where its been since 1934 when it was founded by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield.

The Montreal Neurological Institute never moved to the Glen site. It's still on its perch on the mountain, where its been since 1934.

So if, like my Mum, you are an in-patient with cancer at the Neuro, you have to travel.

If you need a CT guided biopsy, you have to go to the Montreal General, on the mountain. For anything to do with cancer, including radiation, that's at the Glen in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

This is where "Transport World" comes in.

You wait, and wait

"Transport World" consists of dozens of adapted vans that shuttle between hospitals, carrying patients from one hospital to another. In the case of the Neuro, they use a company which is easily identifiable because all of the drivers wear red tuques.

So here's what happens. You are at the Neuro. You have an appointment at 10 a.m. at the Glen. Your transport is arranged for 9 a.m. You get ready, you wait. You wait. You ask the nurses, "Where is transport?"

"Transport is always late," they shrug.

You wait.

Finally, a man in a red tuque arrives with a wheelchair. You bundle the patient (Mum), who is in a hospital gown, into the wheelchair and cover her with blankets.

Caroline Cooper is all bundled up and ready to be transported across the city. (Sue Smith/CBC)

The nurse brings a thick binder wrapped in a pillowcase. This is the patient's chart. Seriously.

Once you are in the van, this actually becomes a fun outing. And, for Mum, an opportunity to meet someone new.

All the drivers were unfailingly sweet and caring and patient. They had impeccable manners and were extremely respectful of Mum. They would make sure she was well bundled and secured in the van. And she would talk, asking them questions in French and pointing out places of interest.

Here's where one friend lived until she moved to Toronto: "Her husband was a big-whig in banking."

Another mansion was a friend's home before her divorce.

McGill! The school of social work where Mum got her Master's. The reservoir! The view of the city! The mountain!

Once you are in the van, this actually becomes a fun outing. Caroline Cooper chats with the drivers and points out places of interest around the city. (Sue Smith/CBC)

When you arrive, the van parks right outside the hospital with dozens of similar vans unloading dozens of patients in hospital gowns clutching charts.

Then the driver leaves. You get your test, go to your appointment, get fitted for a radiation mask — whatever you are there for. When you are finished, they call transport.

And then you wait.

On one particularly bad day, Mum and my sister waited more than five hours at the Jewish General Hospital. Five hours!

Even in transport world where everybody waits, this was egregious.

Apparently there was a miscommunication about where to meet. The driver came and did not find them. Another driver was called. Mum missed lunch. Then snack. That was a bad day.

'Is that our driver?'

The day Mum started radiation was particularly stressful. Radiation, as with most cancer care, is at the Glen. It was a beautiful, cold winter day and our driver had taken us over the mountain and through Westmount. Mum was not her usual chatty self. She was nervous.

On a previous visit she had been fitted with a radiation mask. The mask completely covers her face and gets strapped to the bed. It's used to specifically target the areas in the brain they need to get at — and so that she doesn't move.

The whole process was absolutely terrifying. 

Caroline Cooper is at the Glen, waiting beside the CT scanner to be fitted with her radiation mask. (Sue Smith/CBC)

When she was finished, they called transport. Go to the front and wait, they told us. So we did.

Mum was in a hospital gown in a wheelchair. She was wrapped in a scarf and had on socks and, reluctantly, a tuque.

"I hate myself in hats," she said.

We joined the dozens of other people waiting for transport, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers, some clutching their IVs. And waited.

Mum was tired. It had been a stressful day. She wanted to go "home" to her room at the Neuro. Every time the door opened she would ask, "Is that our driver?"

Mum was getting discouraged. She closed her eyes briefly. Finally a red-tuque guy walked in. I ran over to him but he was there for another patient. He went over to the chosen one and began to wheel him out the door. At this point Mum looked up and saw the red-tuque guy.

"HEY!" she called out, "HEY!!"


"Mum," I said, "It's not our guy. He's taking someone else." She ignored me.

"HEY!", she waved her arms, "YOOO-HOOO!"

I was mortified. "Mum, I talked to him. He's taking someone else. Stop yelling."

"YOOO-HOOO," she was making a scene. All the patients waiting for transport were watching, "AZEEEZ!!"

All of a sudden the red-tuque guy turned to look our way. He stopped wheeling the other patient.

"MRS COOPER!" he cried, running over. "CAROLINE!!"

They embraced, like he was a long lost friend. I stood there with my mouth hanging open as Mum introduced us.

"Susie, this is Aziz. He's from Algeria. He drove me to the Jewish."

"Mrs. Cooper, I am so sorry, I am not here for you. How long have you been waiting?"

"You never came back for me at the Jewish!"

"I did! I did! I couldn't find you! I looked everywhere."

They got caught up. Aziz had been looking on the ground floor. Mum had been waiting at the clinic. Aziz was very apologetic about the mistake, although it had not been his fault. And he was very sorry that he could not personally drive Mum back to the Neuro today. The other patient waited while Aziz phoned dispatch.

"They are coming right away for you, Mrs. Cooper. I made sure of it," he gently took her hand and squeezed it.

"Goodbye, Mrs. Cooper. I hope you are OK," he said, and wheeled his patient out of the door.

"What a doll!" Mum said, "You know, he has three little kids. He is working here so that they will have a better life. But when they grow up he wants to go back to Algeria. He misses the sunshine. He misses his country."

She smiled happily and closed her eyes again to wait. Eventually HER red-tuque guy with her wheelchair came and bundled her into the van. I sat in the back seat clutching her chart wrapped in a pillowcase. She chatted happily with this new driver as he drove us back across the mountain and back to the Neuro for dinner.

That was a good day.


Sue Smith is the host of CBC Radio One's Homerun in Montreal.