Commentary  McGill Health Services almost killed me

One student’s harrowing tale

A month ago, I got sick. A week later my condition had worsened, so I went to McGill Health Services. As usual, I got there at 8:30 a.m., and as usual, I could only get an appointment with a nurse four hours later. I told the nurse my symptoms. She listened to my lungs, took my temperature, and told me to take Tylenol, drink tea with honey, and sleep lots. I obliged.

The next Friday, I had a midterm. Instead of taking the exam, I was back at Health Services at 8:30 a.m., and at 11 a.m., a different nurse listened to my lungs and asked a doctor to look at me. The doctor told me I had a slight case of pneumonia, I should take an antibiotics prescription, she’d get my blood tested, and she’d call if anything was wrong. A chest X-ray wouldn’t be necessary. In the meantime, I should rest, and I’d probably start getting better by Sunday. I left the building confused (pneumonia?) and worried. I did not get better by Sunday.

Luckily for my future, I had booked a flight to Belgium to be with my family for Thanksgiving weekend. There, on Thanksgiving Monday, I got a chest X-ray taken. I was taken to the emergency room. Within hours, I was told that I had pneumonia in both lungs, that the antibiotics I had been taking weren’t the right ones, and that I had to rest for the next week at least. The right antibiotics were prescribed; a follow-up appointment was arranged for the next Monday.

So, I have a couple of accusations for McGill Health Services. First, I was misdiagnosed. By my first meeting with the nurse, I had all the symptoms of pneumonia, and they should’ve sent me to the doctor.

Second, Health Services failed to follow the protocol on every infectious disease guideline. For example, the first guideline is to take a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. This protocol, as dictated by, for example, the Canadian Infectious Disease Society (CIDS) and Infectious Diseases Society of America, is followed in every North American hospital with the facilities to do so, and it was not followed at McGill Health Services.

Third, I was given the wrong antibiotics, even though they had taken a blood test.

Fourth, they did not schedule a follow-up appointment. They had my phone number and my email address; after the blood test results had come in, it would’ve been clear that I had been given the wrong antibiotics, and I’d had pneumonia for three weeks. CIDS states that a follow-up is strongly recommended within 72 hours and a final visit should be conducted within one or two weeks. Pneumonia, I’ve since learned, kills more children worldwide than all other diseases combined. It’s a dangerous disease and should be treated with attention.

Fifth, my condition could’ve been treated by the first meeting and I could’ve been going to class a week later. Instead, I missed a month of classes, was unable to leave Belgium because of my serious condition, missed my return flight (last-minute airplane tickets don’t come cheap), and had to withdraw from a course. I’ll get worse grades this semester because of a disease that could’ve been treated early.

I can keep complaining, but really I’m writing this piece because I want something to happen. I’m at a loss. I know that McGill Health Services provides a lot to many students, and its employees work at highest capacity, but after my experience, I do want things to change. Do readers know if there is anything I can or should do? For example, should I submit a complaint or file a lawsuit? Can I get my money back for the class I withdrew from? Where and how do I do these things?
In addition, I would like students to be aware of other options. In my case, and in the case of twenty per cent of McGill students, international health insurance covers many hospitals and institutions in Montreal, and you can find a list online of doctors that accept Blue Cross health care. Don’t go collecting more diseases in the McGill Health Services waiting room at 8:30 a.m. I’ve learned other lessons, too: next time I have a fatal disease, I’m just going to call an ambulance, not McGill Health Services. They can’t seem to handle them very well.

Aaron Vansintjan is a U3 Philoophy and Enviornment student. He’s a former Daily Design & Production editor and a current member of the DPS board. Write him at