Gasping to understand why people smoke outside hospitals

A serious bout with a respiratory illness has made me see how unsettling it is to see smokers right on the doorstep of a St. John's hospital, writes Jonathan Crowe.
Jonathan Crowe has often encountered smokers outside St. Clare's Mercy Hospital, most of them seemingly oblivious to the prohibition on smoking. (John Gushue/CBC)

Question: How do you find the smokers at St. Clare's hospital? 

Answer: Just walk outside and look for the "No Smoking" signs.

There they are, huddled under the signs, clutching their Du Mauriers.

A real living billboard for quality health care in this great province of ours.

Now, I have nothing against smokers. I am just vehemently against inhaling their second-hand smoke, especially when I'm walking into the hospital for an appointment with my respirologist.

This is the same respirologist who's urged me to avoid anything that might set off my asthma. There are many things that can set an asthma attack off, but I would assume cigarette smoke would be near the top of the list.

Sometimes I feel that my trips to St Clare's are the living embodiment of irony.

A matter of exposure

While "ironic" is one way of describing the situation, "outrageous" might be a better word. Why should any patient on their way into a hospital have to be exposed to second-hand smoke?

I just did a quick Google search: The Centre for Disease Control's website tells me that second-hand smoke contains 7,000 different chemicals, of which 70 can cause cancer. 

My lungs and I visit the hospital regularly

Over the past 14 months my lungs and I have become regular visitors at St. Clare's. I haven't tallied it up but I would say that by now thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dollars have been spent on my care.

The two hospital stays, the MRIs, the X-rays, the ultrasounds, the drugs and the two excellent doctors who've tried to figure out why I periodically lapse into episodes of wheezing and coughing.

My health issues have stretched from one year and spilled over into another. Eastern Health has sunk a lot of money into me. And I'm just one patient. 

My respirologist has devoted most of his life to treating smoking related illness. Eastern Health has sponsored and promoted dozens of "quit smoking" campaigns. 

Yet the folks in administration still can't figure out what to do with the smokers who huddle right outside the windows of my doc's waiting room. 

A dogged bunch, smokers

At St. Clare's they seem to be everywhere. Those smokers are a dogged bunch. It could be raining, it could be -20 C, the wind might be howling down St. Clare Avenue. Yet there they are, day after day, puffing away, clinging to the side of the hospital like barnacles. 

Cigarette butts litter a section of the trail around Long Pond in St. John's. (CBC)

Across town, the smoking spectacle is even sillier. 

The Health Sciences Centre is the province's largest, busiest hospital. It's Eastern Health's flagship facility.The very symbol of health care.

But before you meet your doctor, you must first run the gauntlet of smokers. 

Cancer patients from all over the province are treated at the H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre. Remember that second-hand smoke contains at least 70 nasty chemicals that can cause cancer. Why on earth should cancer patients have to walk through smokers, just a few steps away from the clinic's main entrance? 

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      The more canny smokers at the HSC — many of them staff members — head across the road to the Long Pond trail. This is the same trail used by walkers and runners looking to get a little exercise and fresh air.

      The smokers have even set up an ash tray in the woods. You can't miss it. It's on a pedestal surrounded by cigarette butts and is about two metres from a river. 

      I've walked and run around long pond hundreds of times. There's no greater insult to the lungs than coming around the west end of Long Pond and inhaling a lung full of someone else's smoke. [A sidebar: A firefighter friend of mine once told me he was surprised that the woods around the pond hadn't been burned to the ground.] 

      Here's an idea

      Now, I don't intend this to be a rant against smokers. I feel sorry for them. It's a terrible addiction. I have friends and family who've spent their lives trying to quit. They've told me how tough it is.

      We can lecture, we can educate, but let's face it, people are going to smoke.

      So here's my suggestion to the health authority. Give smokers a place of their own. It should have a roof over it. It should be heated.

      And it should be well away from the patients and within walking distance of your facilities. 

      Your patients will thank you, the smokers will thank you, and your image will be the better for it.  


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