Falling Through the Cracks


Sandy Wagner

I never understood the true meaning of this overly-clichéd phrase until I met two women I'll call Lee and Marie, and a man I'll call Albert. Their stories are all true, sadly.


Lee is a young single mother with two children, one of whom is diabetic. She is on income assistance and so has most prescriptions paid for. The cost of the testing strips for the necessary glucose monitor is covered. However, Lee's social worker tells her she is using too many and must cut back. Sure, she says. She'll just stop testing his blood sugar levels. No problem. If he is dangerously out of balance he’ll pass out and she’ll know, without wasting test strips.
When Lee's son began school, she was surprised to find out there are no longer any school nurses. She expected there would be some cutbacks, but NO school nurse at all?  As he was too young to do it himself, and with no school nurse or trained aide, who would check Lee’s son’s blood sugar readings and administer his insulin during the day? Lee, of course. So, with her younger child in tow, Lee would sit outside her son’s classroom and every two hours, she would quietly motion through the window for him to meet her in the restroom, where she would monitor his blood sugar level and give him either insulin or a snack to balance it out.  Should there be some assistance at school for Lee, or maybe a sitter for the younger child while Lee spends her days in the school hallway? Yes, but not for a young mum on social assistance.


Marie is a fiercely protective woman with a dysfunctional family. She has been the family’s glue, holding them together her whole life despite prolonged severe depression. Marie's family doctor retired six months ago, and the replacement doctor was more concerned with her weight than her mental well-being so she stopped seeing him. She now feels that her current anti-depressants are no longer doing their job, and her depression is deepening, but with no regular family doctor to consult she relies on the local clinic. They won't change her prescription but did set up a referral to a psychiatrist; unfortunately the appointment is several months away and Marie is feeling more and more depressed, anxious, and suicidal. She goes to the emergency psychiatric intake at the Russ Courtnall Centre, where she is kept waiting for six hours, sees a doctor for three minutes, and is released. The next week she takes all her anti-depressants in an attempt to bring an end to her anguish; a neighbour sees what has happened and drives Marie to the hospital, where she is kept under observation for nine hours, then sent home. A few weeks later Marie is distraught and returns to the Russ Courtnall Centre with a friend who is a counsellor. Afraid to speak for herself, she asks if her friend can go inside with her. "Just as soon as we have your paperwork processed," she is told. Hours later, with her friend still in the outside waiting room, Marie has still not seen a doctor but is getting more and more upset and frantic and asks for her friend; when she is told her friend cannot come into the inside waiting area nor speak to the doctor (whenever that might be) Marie rips off her admission armband and leaves.


Albert lives in a trailer...not a fancy Winnebago, a small trailer, the kind you pull behind your pickup truck. It is not much larger than a tent. He is alone in his trailer one morning when he awakens feeling strange and has trouble getting out of bed. He phones his daughter, the only nearby family member, and after listening to his slurred voice she urges him to meet her at the emergency room. Albert gets a friend to drive him to ER where it is determined he has suffered a mild stroke. He is lucky, they tell him—no permanent damage and a short rehab period. Albert is released within a week with some dizziness, confusion and weakness. He is able to slowly manoeuvre with a walker, rented by his daughter. Before his release, his daughter spends hours on the phone trying to find out what help is available for him. He cannot walk on his own and, as he lives alone, she tries to find out if there is some sort of halfway house or temporary, assisted housing for him. None. The hospital social worker explains that, as a family member has come forward, he is not entitled to any assistance from them. She tries to explain that he cannot get up the three stairs into his home, and even if he could, his walker won't fit in the narrow confines of his tiny trailer. He can't cook for himself or do much of anything in his current state, and the restroom is in an outbuilding.  But no help is available. If he was truly alone with no family, there "may" be some assistance, she is told.

Albert’s daughter reluctantly rents a cot, and he camps in her living room for several weeks. During those weeks she cooks for him, helps him bathe, and walks him up and down her apartment hallway and throughout the neighbourhood, the only exercise he can manage, to try and get his strength back. She takes the bus with him to apply for Employment Insurance because he hasn't taken a bus in 40 years and doesn’t have a clue what to do. They are both amazed to find out that everything is done via computer now, no handwritten forms are accepted. Albert has never touched a computer in his life, but his daughter has an old clunker at home, so back they go and painstaking apply online for medical EI benefits. She wonders how he would have filled out these forms without her, and without a computer. He couldn’t type before his stroke and sure can’t now.  He doesn’t understand the questions, but together they get the forms filled in, click “send” and hope for the best. There seemed to be no one at the EI office who would help. Once they saw he had "help" he was told to go home and apply there.


Lee, Marie, and Albert have all fallen through the cracks of our city and province. Their stories, I have come to learn, are not unique. As they all have a small amount of help from family or friends, “the system” moves on to those in greater need.

 To these three forgotten people—Lee, Marie, and Albert—I can give nothing but my compassion and my pledge to share their stories in the hope that somehow, sometime soon, the cracks will be filled so no more of our citizens fall through.