Mom whose son caught in croup 'nightmare' wants to see broken health-care system fixed

An Essex, Ont,. mom has desperately been trying to get treatment for her two-year-old son who has had numerous episodes of croup over the past year, but after a surgery was cancelled, she feels let down by a broken healthcare system. Now, she's calling for change.

Laura MacMillan's 2-year-old son has experienced 9 episodes of croup since October 2021

Laura MacMillan says she's run out of options to help her son, who has been battling croup on-and-off for more than a year. (Submitted by Laura MacMillan)

An Essex, Ont., mom has desperately been trying to get treatment for her two-year-old son who has had numerous episodes of croup over the past year, but after a surgery was cancelled, she feels let down by a "broken" healthcare system. Now, she's calling for change.

"We're desperate, frankly," explained Laura MacMillan. "He can't breathe and there's nothing I can do to help him."

A surgery scheduled for this week at the London Health Sciences Centre's children's hospital had given the family hope for a resolution for Harris, but it was cancelled with no new date in sight. 

"We were really, really hoping that we finally had a path to go down to try to figure out what's happening," MacMillan said. "He can't live like this."

MacMillan does not fault the health care workers, whose efforts she appreciates, and understands they are "run ragged right now" to keep things afloat, but she is calling on provincial officials to take action to fix what she describes as a broken health-care system. 

In a strongly worded e-mail to the office of the premier, MacMillan urged Doug Ford to do more to support under-staffed and under-funded hospitals and fix the health-care system, while acknowledging that there are many other families in similar, or worse, situations than hers.

In a statement to CBC News, Ontario's Ministry of Health said that the government is making "historic" investments to boost hospital capacity, including $300 million this fiscal year toward a surgical recovery strategy.

"We are working with all our health-care partners to identify innovative solutions to clear the surgical backlog, like expanding funding for procedures performed on evenings and weekends," a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also said that Health Minister Sylvia Jones "has been in constant communication with pediatric hospital CEOs and has offered the government's full support."

'Came out of nowhere'

Harris is described as a beautiful, bright, funny and fearless kid, who loves buses and monster trucks. 

But Harris and his parents' world was turned upside down when Harris had his first bout of croup just before his first birthday in October 2021. 

"It sort of came out of nowhere and it hasn't stopped," MacMillan described.

WATCH | Laura MacMillan describes how helpless she feels as a mother when her son goes through episodes of croup: 

Laura MacMillan on her son's ongoing battle with croup

6 months ago
Duration 1:07
Laura MacMillan explains how it feels as a mother whenever her son experiences an episode of croup.

Now, Macmillan, who is 19 weeks pregnant with her second child, spends most of her nights sleeping on the floor next to her son so that she can listen to him breathing.

According to the Canadian Lung Association, croup is described as a "viral infection that causes swelling in the throat and vocal cords" usually affecting children under the age of five. It's characterized by a loud barking cough that gets worse at night. 

Children might typically experience croup once or twice a year, the doctors told MacMillan, but her son has been through it nine times in one year. 

The episodes are terrifying, MacMillan explained, happening without warning, usually in the middle of the night. Harris is unable to draw a breath, unable to swallow. Sometimes, it results in heavy vomiting.

MacMillan describes it as a "nightmare."

The numerous infections have caused a backup of fluid in his ears that's been there so long that he now has hearing loss, MacMillan explained.

Surgery cancelled

Throughout multiple emergency room visits with long wait times at Windsor Regional Hospital, and various doctor's appointments, his mom explained that the family had been told to wait it out, and that things would get better when he got bigger. That was a response the family was unwilling to accept.

A pediatrician finally referred Harris to a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist in London who determined he was a candidate for a day-surgery procedure on his wind pipe, MacMillan explained.

Laura MacMillan's son Harris has had to be rushed to the emergency room numerous times during episodes of croup. (Submitted by Laura MacMillan)

When the surgery was cancelled, the family was told it was because there were no beds available to him for overnight observation. The province-wide influx of respiratory illnesses has Ontario hospitals overloaded. 

"It seems like every time we try to help him. Our hands are tied," she said.

She stressed she holds nothing against the London hospital for having to cancel the surgery. 

"They're very compassionate," she said. "If they had a solution I'm sure they would be putting it into effect."

While the surgery will happen eventually, once the respiratory illness influx subsides, MacMillan said it's painful to have no idea of when, and given the backlog across Ontario, she's not optimistic it will happen any time soon. 

Harris MacMillan is described by his mom as "beautiful, bright, funny, and fearless." (Submitted by Laura MacMillan)

London Health Sciences Centre told CBC in an emailed statement that like all pediatric hospitals across Ontario, it's experiencing unprecedented high volumes and patient acuities in its children's emergency department, pediatric critical care unit and pediatric inpatient units because of an influx of respiratory related illnesses. 

"With occupancy levels for inpatient beds at Children's Hospital currently sitting at 115 per cent, the difficult decision was made to reduce surgical activity temporarily to maintain critical care capacity," the statement said, in part.

"We continue to evaluate the situation daily, ensuring time-sensitive surgeries are prioritized within the severe constraints we're facing."

At Windsor Regional Hospital, both Ouellette and Met Campuses are functioning at just over 100 per cent capacity with one five-year old in ICU for RSV, and 18 patients currently waiting in the emergency department to be admitted ot an in-patient bed.

"Our health-care system is failing many, many people," said France Gélinas, the health critic for the Ontario NDP and MPP for the riding of Nickel Belt. "It shouldn't be like this. We know we can do better."

She hopes the minister of health hears pleas like that of parents like MacMillan and works with health-care workers and hospital administrators to address the problems taking place. 

Gélinas explained that supporting and respecting health-care workers should be the province's top priority, as well as making use the financial resources at its disposal to support the health-care system. 

"He's a trooper," MacMillan said of Harris. "He's a strong little dude, but ... there's no answers for us to give him."

Writing to the province was her last attempt to get some support. 

"We have exhausted our options," she said.

"We're sitting ducks. We're just waiting for the call [for surgery.] But I have no idea when it's going to be coming."


Katerina Georgieva

Host of CBC Windsor News at 6

Katerina Georgieva is an RTDNA award winning multi-platform journalist for CBC News based in Windsor, Ont., with a passion for human interest stories. She has also worked for CBC in Toronto, Charlottetown, and Winnipeg. Have a news tip? You can reach her at

With files from Jason Viau