The Big Blue Button

Bear with me…I’m about to make a case for civil disobedience with respect to the (non)delivery of healthcare.         

We’ve all experienced the feeling of helplessness and controlled panic when our mothers, fathers, partners, children and friends are in hospital awaiting treatment, be it emergency care or post surgical care.  They’re writhing in pain with no medical personnel in sight.  You run out to the nursing station again and again pleading for help.  When is the doctor coming?  Can’t you give them something for the pain?  The answer is always the same.  You’ll get medical attention when it’s your turn, we’re busy, others are sicker, be patient…go away.

This scenario played out for a friend of mine recently.  Her mother is very old and very ill with lung disease.  Mom took a turn for the worst and was rushed to the ER in what is touted to be the second best hospital in Canada to treat Mom’s condition.  The ER was not only chaotic and slow, it was dirty.  My friend and her brothers waited with Mom for hours before a doctor assessed Mom and send her to a ward.

Once Mom was parked in the ward she was off the ER’s “to do” list but still in considerable pain—but no one came.  She had entered the twilight zone where no one was responsible for her.  Mom struggled to breathe while her children frantically searched for a doctor.  They went back to ER to find the doctor who’d originally admitted Mom.  He was less than helpful.  They talked to the ward nurses who finally called a doctor (lord only knows who it was this time) who prescribed something to help Mom relax.  The drug was of little help and Mom had what is euphemistically called “a rough night”.  The search for a doctor continued, Mom got worse and the children were beside themselves.

And then my friend did the unthinkable—she hit the big blue button on the wall next to the bed.  This call button initiated a Code Blue.  Code Blue is used to indicate a patient requiring immediate resuscitation, often as a result of cardiac arrest.  Doctors and nurses streamed into Mom’s room.  Clearly Mom was breathing, albeit with great difficulty.  She didn’t need resuscitation.  There was no Code Blue.

The moment of reckoning came swiftly.  The doctors demanded to know who pushed the button.  My friend said I did.  Why?  Because Mom is in agony and no one will help her.  The doctors reprimanded my friend for initiating a Code Blue inappropriately.  They chastised her for diverting medical personnel from more needy patients and for not going to the head nurse who, apparently was not apprised of the situation by her own nursing staff (why this should be my friend’s problem and not the head nurse’s problem is beyond me).

After the hubbub died down, the doctors took good care of Mom.  They prescribed medication which alleviated the pain and made Mom more comfortable.  The children set up a vigil taking turns staying with Mom through the night.  The doctors and nurses continued to be attentive to Mom for the duration of her stay.  (No doubt they were worried that those lunatics in Mom’s room would hit the big blue button again).

My friend’s desperate act comes at a time when the media is exploding with stories about Canada’s broken public health system.  Dr Jeffrey Turnbull, the outgoing president of the Canadian Medical Association, didn’t mince words when he referred to the “deeply troubled” healthcare system and said “…this pillar of Canadian society is eroding”*.  Meanwhile, the government of Alberta is working on Phase 2 of legislative reform which will further erode the protection of universal healthcare enshrined in the Canada Health Act.**

Gary Mar, the front runner in the PC leadership race, is boldly advocating a two-tier system that will provide prompt medical attention to the wealthy.  When asked to respond to Mr Mar’s position that Alberta doctors should be able to offer hip and knee replacements or other “non-essential services” to wealthy patients as an economic opportunity (?) Health Minister Zwozdesky said:  “I don’t have any particular thoughts on any of the issues that any of the candidates have mentioned so far”.***Really??  Surely it’s the Health Minister’s job to have an opinion on the most critical issue in his portfolio.  Dr Bissoondath, founder of Preventous, a private healthcare clinic, doesn’t sugar coat the problem.  He argues that the fix will require “a major public outcry Canada-wide” ****

For decades concerned Albertans (and medical professionals like the United Nurses of Alberta) have met with MLAs and MPs, staged rallies on the grounds of the Legislature, written letters to the editor, posted articles in newsletters and the social media and participated in government sponsored focus groups and a political leadership forums.  They have clearly articulated their position—we believe in publically funded universal healthcare.  What more can we do?

Well, there’s always civil disobedience.  In a nutshell, civil disobedience is the refusal to obey government laws in a non violent manner.  Policy-based civil disobedience is the act of breaking the law in order to change a policy one views as dangerously wrong.  I don’t know whether pushing the big blue button is illegal, but it is most certainly a breach of hospital protocol.

As we stand helplessly by and watch our mothers, fathers, partners, children and friends suffer because of unacceptable wait times for surgery, in the ER and on the wards we will be left with no choice but to push that big blue button.  Yes, it’s an act of civil disobedience but it sends a message—we really and truly have had enough.

* Herald Aug 24, 2011 A5   

**UNA Analysis of Leaked Document, Dec 2010 

*** Edmonton Journal Aug 18, 2011

****Calgary Herald Advertising Supplement Aug 27, 2011.


This entry was posted in Alberta Health Care, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Big Blue Button

  1. Rose Marie MacKenzie says:

    I agree that pushing the big blue button was the wrong approach because it does have a specific purpose, but so do all those people who are being paid big salaries to look out for my best interest. We are almost back to the old days when people used to say, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Surprising part of your story is that numerous medical people found the time to reprimand the “button pusher” for doing the wrong thing and assess blame. Their limited time would be better spent dealing with a needy patient.

    • Rose, you’ve identified the double edged sword of civil disobedience. Pushing the big blue button may be “wrong” under the existing law or at the very least under the hospital protocols, but given the circumstances where hours had gone by and no one came to ease the suffering of a sick old woman I would have done the same thing. As you point out, the medical personnel didn’t have time to treat my friend’s mother, but they did find time to scold her about the misuse of the big blue button! Maybe they should spend some time figuring out why the families of patients are driven to take such drastic steps in the first place. One last point…knowing your spunk and feistiness, I know you’d push the big blue button for me and I promise I’ll push it for you too. There will be NO unnecessary suffering in our family! (But we might all end up in jail).

  2. Susan;
    excellent post, as usual.
    If you and/or your sister DO push the blue button, I promise i will come and bail you out!

    • Oh good. We’ll need someone to get us out–my husband is still working through the moral implications of whether it’s OK to push the blue button. This topic has sparked some interesting debates around our house! Thanks Sheila.

  3. R. Perry says:


    Referred to your site as / by someone with similar circumstances.

    Although the book is directed to corporate business, the driving forces behind the ideas in “The Blame Game” by Ben Dattner & Darren Dahl unfortunately explain the direction more and more of our society is taking.

    If it works, “I” take the credit (which I am sure the doctors did when your mother started to feel better).

    If it doesn’t, it is someone else”s fault – the patients because she is unresponsive and not following directions, or she should have come in earlier, or the people around her don’t understand the system and are meddling (and pushing the Blue Button)

    Sometimes I feel that all of us should carry around one of those Staples Red “STOP” buttons (with it had sounds to go with it)

    @Edm_CARP and @CARP_Edm

    • Richard: it’s downright frightening how often we run into situations where someone who is supposed to be responsible for something simply refuses to take accountability for failing to deliver. I love your suggestion that we carry around a Red STOP button…if nothing else it would let those “blame” people know that we’re not buying their argument that it wasn’t their fault. Thanks for the book suggestion–looks like interesting reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s