CORNER BROOK, N.L. — Day in, day out, Joe Walsh stood by helplessly while his wife vomited.
There was nothing he could do, nowhere he could turn for help. No doctor in this city seemed willing, or able, to take on his wife's case. No one seemed to care that the tiny fetus Michelle was carrying might not be getting the nutrients and vitamins so crucial in those first weeks of gestation.
Not one of the 10 or more doctors' offices Joe contacted would make an appointment for a new patient, even after he explained that his wife had already been through a difficult pregnancy that meant frequent visits to a hospital, and two miscarriages.
He watched his wife suffer, and wished there was something he could do. There seemed to be no end in sight.
And maybe there isn't. Four months after their ordeal began, this couple and their four-year-old daughter Ashley still don't have a family doctor.
Because they had just returned to Newfoundland from Calgary, their home for six years, Joe, a native of Corner Brook, and Michelle, who's from Burgeo, didn't have a family doctor when Michelle became ill in January. Optimistically, they turned to the Yellow Pages and its list of physicians, looking for a doctor who could prescribe something for Michelle's constant nausea. They didn't get very far.
"First I phoned female doctors because we're more comfortable with a female," Joe said.
"But everyone I phoned said they weren't taking any new patients. I explained the situation, saying my wife is really sick and we think she's pregnant. They still said they weren't taking new patients."
Ten telephone calls later, Joe got an appointment with a physician. But during the visit that doctor told the couple that while he would refer Michelle to a specialist, he couldn't take on her case. And he didn't order a pregnancy test.
The appointment with a specialist was set for March 26. But long before that Michelle become so ill she ended up in the emergency department at Western Memorial Regional Hospital.
"A doctor there told me it was no place for a pregnant woman," she said. "That I should be going to a clinic. Joe had called her clinic and was told they weren't taking new patients. All of a sudden I could see her (before) I saw the specialist.
"It was an ordeal," Michelle, 27, said. "We'd been trying for two years (to have another baby) and we didn't want to take any chances.
"I was really, really sick. I was in bed all day and I couldn't move. I couldn't eat or drink -- the baby wasn't getting enough nutrients. I couldn't take vitamins because they made me sick.
"I felt, 'does anybody care? Does anybody want to help us? Is it all in my mind? Am I really this sick?' I was pretty mad. Doctors are here to help you and make you feel better. It isn't fair."
"It's very, very frustrating," the 31-year-old Joe said, admitting that after the fourth refusal "I wasn't very nice on the phone.
"I was trying to care for Michelle and I wasn't a doctor. I couldn't help her the way a doctor could. It seemed like it wasn't important enough.
"Coming from Calgary it was unbelievable the difference. There you get to see a doctor just like that. Here it seemed as if (the doctors) had enough problems and enough patients."
Now more than five months pregnant and feeling better, Michelle is being cared for by a specialist she describes as wonderful.
"It was pretty bad, but we're on a good road now," she said. "Knowing there's a doctor you can go to gives you peace of mind. After we saw the specialist we felt like everything was going to be OK. It was a sense of relief that a specialist is taking care of us, that he's concerned and has everything in hand."
Words of advice
Michelle said heading to an emergency department, as she did, only adds to an already stressed health-care system, but she doesn't see any alternative.
"I'd recommend going to emergency because you're not going to have any luck finding a good doctor," she said. "I wouldn't want to be someone who just moved here and is sick."
Ironically, the Walsh family is still without a family doctor. When the baby is born, or if Ashley becomes ill, they'll once again have to turn to the telephone book for answers and that's not a task they want to face again.
"I guess it falls back on the shortage of medical staff here in the city," Joe said.
"But what does the city have to offer someone who wants to come here? If it's this bad here, I can imagine the problems the smaller communities are facing."