January 8, 2013 · 11:54 AM

Dear editor,

It's New Year's Day. We've invited to dinner Bob, an old friend who lives alone across the street.

Just as I'm finishing setting the table, the phone rings. I can't make out the words but it's Bob's voice. He's sobbing.

I rush out. He's hunched over my car gasping in pain, but manages to ask if I can take him to Emergency at the local hospital.

He has rectal cancer but has had no treatment whatsoever since it showed up nine months ago. This isn't the first time I've had to take him to Emergency but all he gets is stronger and stronger pain killers. Now he's almost out of morphine tablets and afraid he won't be able to make it through the night.

Getting him to the hospital is a struggle but that's just the beginning of the nightmare.

Slowly, he whispers the necessary information to the woman at the front desk. She takes his blood pressure. The systolic pressure is 167. He says it should be about 120.

We're sent to sit on hard, vinyl-covered chairs and told he'll have to wait. That's pretty obvious because the waiting room is crowded.

There's a baby crying non-stop. The mother is doing her best to comfort her but the little girl is clearly in great distress.

I ask the mother how long she's been waiting. She says four hours. I am too horrified to reply.

The lady next to her is gritting her teeth and trying somehow to survive extreme back pain. There's a teenager choking back tears. His arm seems to be broken.

I turn back to Bob. He's doubled over with his head in his hands. Tears are oozing from his eyes and he's trying not to scream.

He asks if I can get him some water so that he can take another morphine tablet. There are only two left in the bottle he's clutching. I check the label. He's not supposed to take them more often than every two to four hours but admits that he took one half an hour ago.  He thinks the bleeding from his rectum has started again.

I tell the woman at the front desk and say he's almost passing out from the pain but the answer is, "No more morphine right now" and, "He'll just have to wait. There's nothing I can do."

All I can do is sit with him, talk, and rub his hands. They're freezing. We all are because the only doors to this place slide wide open every time anybody enters or leaves and cold damp air keeps wafting in.

I find out a bit more about why some of the other people are here. A headache. A sinus infection. Just needs a checkup.

Some are chatting away. Some are even laughing. Others are in extreme pain. No one has made any attempt to prioritize the lineup.

Three hours later, Bob is allowed through the locked door to wait in the corridor where the cubicles are. I am told, however, that I cannot enter this inner sanctum because they don't have enough seats.

Doesn't anybody know how important human support is? Can't this place afford even a few more cheap kitchen chairs? With a look of despair, Bob shuffles away.

Seething, I go back to the waiting room. The crowd has thinned out a bit. Some people have given up. They probably realized the futility of waiting and figured they'd be better off suffering at home.

I look around. The room is littered with dirty coffee cups, used tissues, bits of paper towels, old newspapers.

A cleaner arrives, trundling a cart and carrying a filthy mop. She throws a few bits of rubbish into a garbage bin, swipes her mop a couple of times round the floor next to the can and, without rinsing the mop or using any disinfectant, goes over and spreads some more germs round the chair in front of the admissions area.

Then off she goes, leaving the floor as filthy as ever and the garbage bin breeding bacteria. I suppose, however, that this is OK as long as we all obey the signs and wash our hands before we enter the hospital.

Finally, Bob is sent off with a few more morphine tablets and a prescription for a week's supply. This time, the dosage is higher and he still doesn't know when he's going to get any treatment.

A sorry tale? Yes. And it isn't fiction. I wish it was.

Nor is this an unusual situation in Emergency at the hospital in Comox. So please don't anybody trot out the platitude that "they're doing their best."

That's no use to a child left screaming in pain for hours, to an old man weeping in agony, or to any of the other victims of a dysfunctional system masquerading under the name "health care."

Leith Stewart,