Montreal mother says ER wait times, children's painkiller shortage had her fearing for son's life

Emer O'Toole's asthmatic son caught pneumonia. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Emer O'Toole's asthmatic son caught pneumonia. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

Emer O'Toole says it was a nightmare to get care for her one-year-old asthmatic son when he got pneumonia last week.

With pharmacy drug shortages and endless waits in two different emergency rooms, she feared for his life.

O'Toole first noticed signs of respiratory distress in her toddler last Sunday, but it wasn't until Wednesday that she was able to get her hands on medication.

"That's the point at which it gets dangerous," she said.

"You hear wheezing and if there's an infection you often hear something that sounds like Rice Krispies when you pour in the milk."

These poor kids, these poor parents, how is this possible? How is there no plan here? — Emer O'Toole

When O'Toole took her son to a children's hospital she was told the wait time would be 20 hours. Ultimately, she decided to return home, wanting to avoid exposing her already ill son to a room filled with other sick children.

She then turned to the CLSC, where her family doctor works. On their recommendation, she got an appointment at a semi-private clinic. An X-ray was scheduled for her son the next day and O'Toole was instructed to return to the ER his symptoms got worse overnight.

And they did.

'This is so dangerous'

She tried going to the Jean-Talon Hospital ER that night, but still couldn't be seen by a doctor after several hours of waiting for care.

When her son's X-ray came back, it revealed he had pneumonia. Finally, a clinic doctor sent a prescription for antibiotics to her pharmacy but she soon learned it was on back order.

"I thought, 'This is so dangerous,'" said O'Toole. "These poor kids, these poor parents, how is this possible? How is there no plan here?"

O'Toole was then directed to another pharmacy about a 20 minute drive away from her home, which carried the raw ingredients to concoct the necessary antibiotics. However, it took about an hour to get.

Rowan Kennedy/CBC
Rowan Kennedy/CBC

On Thursday evening, once her son started to recover, she posted about her experience on Twitter. The post garnered thousands of likes, underscoring how relatable her family's experience was.

For about two months, children's cold and flu medications have been scant and antibiotics have been stuck on back order.

Some people have become so desperate, they've crossed the border to get Tylenol from the United States.

"For the time being we are in the dark, we don't know when anything is coming back, especially with things that are over the counter like Tylenol," said Fady Kamel, a pharmacist and owner of a Proximed branch in Dollard-Des-Ormeaux.

He said while the shortage started about eight weeks ago, the issues are becoming more noticeable now, as stocks decline and medications are stuck on back order.

The shortage of fever reducing medicines is also driving a spike in ER visits, he said, especially as this flu season's peak came early.

"If a child is sick, a lot of the time it's accompanied by a fever and it's very important to reduce the fever. If the fever doesn't go down, then it's more of an emergency and you have to take them to the hospital," said Kamel.

Earl Rubin, the head of infectious disease division at Montreal Children's Hospital, agrees with Kamel, that the lack of cold medicine is causing more ER visits. He said about 600 kids are going to the ER with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu symptoms every day.

"It's crazy what's going on in the emergency room," he said.

Though there is a triage system in place, Rubin pointed to a lack of alternative places where children can be evaluated, now that special COVID clinics have closed. He recommends parents call 811 so nurses can help them access resources.

The Ministry of Health and Social Services did not immediately respond to CBC's interview request.