Martin C. Barry
A Chomedey woman who claims she was repeatedly denied service in English at Laval’s Cité de la Santé is vowing never to return there, but will seek medical treatment at Sacré Cœur Hospital across the Des Prairies river in Montreal where she says there is better service in English.
In an interview with the Laval News, Bonnie Gavin said her first encounter with staff at Cité de la Santé who were unable or unwilling to assist her in English dates back to September last year when she went to the hospital for tests after experiencing stomach pain from a kidney stone.
‘Refused to speak English’
While noting that she was feeling apprehensive because of the uncertainty over her health, Gavin said that when she went to the patient registration counter to provide her hospital card information, she encountered a clerk who addressed her in French.
“I replied, ‘I’m sorry but my French is not that good. Your English is probably a lot better than my French,’ said Gavin, who was born and raised in Chomedey and who returned to Quebec in 2005 after living in Alberta for several decades. “Then she gave me a look and just continued to speak French. She refused to speak English.”
This past September Gavin was back at Cité de la Santé when she was experiencing pain again. She said she asked her doctor to not send her to Cité de la Santé because of the language barrier.
An emergency situation
When Gavin’s doctor pointed out that there was no choice but to send her to Cité de la Santé since the doctor was associated with the hospital, Gavin went back somewhat unwillingly. But again, she ran into a problem. This time it was with a lab attendant whose instructions she couldn’t understand because they were spoken to her in French.
Then three weeks ago, Gavin’s sister, who also lives in Laval, was rushed to Cité de la Santé with a head injury. Gavin claims that when she phoned the hospital for information on her sister’s state, she was unable to make herself properly understood to a French-speaking employee in the emergency department.
“I said I wanted to know if my sister was there because I just got a phone call saying she was rushed to the hospital,” Gavin said. “The girl was speaking French. I said ‘can you get somebody please who understands English because I have to know if my sister’s there?”
No service in English
Gavin admits that in her frustration at being unable to find someone who would help her in English, she rung off a few times, then phoned back every five minutes or so hoping perhaps that someone other than the person who kept answering would pick up.
“I called five times, and all five times the girl who answered at emergency refused to speak English to me,” she said. Although an employee answering at the Cité de la Santé’s main switchboard was able to communicate with her in English, Gavin said the emergency department worker couldn’t or wouldn’t.
She insists that the emergency department employee told her somewhat sarcastically that Cité de la Santé “is in Laval.” Gavin replied, “Yeah, I know, I live in Laval and I want to know if my sister is here.” She claims the worker then responded, “Madame, Cité de la Santé is a French hospital.”
Doctors will speak English
Although she was eventually able to locate her sister, it was only because her sister called her on a phone from the hospital to say where she was. In the meantime, Gavin has her doubts that the Cité de la Santé workers in question didn’t understand her. She suspects they chose not to serve her in English.
Gavin’s husband, Doug Telfer, who accompanied her on her hospital visits, noted that although many Cité de la Santé support workers either can’t or won’t speak English, doctors and other medical staff appear to be more capable and “they’ll speak English to you” when necessary, he said.
Gavin, who was being followed for her health problem by two doctors at one point (one of them is affiliated with Sacré Cœur Hospital), said the Cartierville-based health institution does a much better job of providing service to its English-speaking patients.
“I will never go back to Cité de la Santé,” she said. She insisted the issue isn’t so much about language as it is about health. “When I go out I try to speak French. But when it comes to my health and I don’t understand them, that’s a different story.”
Cité de la Santé responds
Paula Beaudoin, a spokesperson for the CISSS de Laval which oversees Cité de la Santé, said the health care agency currently has a policy requiring certain departments at the hospital to provide service in English. “Emergency is a department where service must be available in English,” she said, while noting that not all personnel are expected to be able to speak English.
However, she pointed out, employees are told that if and when they encounter someone English-speaking who they are unable to serve properly because of a language barrier, they are to seek out another employee who can converse in English.
According to a French-language document (Politique d’accès aux soins et services en langue anglaise du CISSS de Laval) e-mailed by Beaudoin to the Laval News, Cité de la Santé is not “designated” as a health establishment where service must be provided in English, although it is “indicated” as such, meaning a certain degree of service in English must be available.
Bilingual staff ‘must be present’
The document states, “A sufficient number of bilingual persons must be present at all times in the following services to assure English-language service, depending on the needs of users, including: reception, medical archives, day centres, info-health, intensive care, at-home support, emergency.”
It continues, “During an emergency or critical situation for the user, if the linguistic barrier compromises access to efficient care or services, the providers must seek within the immediate area a person capable of translating the exchange between the user and the staff providing treatment.”
Regarding the treatment Bonnie Gavin said she was subjected to, Beaudoin issued the following statement: “The management of CISSS de Laval is sorry that the woman had to endure these inconveniences. We expect to restate the directives to the staff and the health professionals involved.”