4 min

Hospital accused of transphobia

Did 'disgusted' doctor discharge Cynthia Cousens over gender reassignment?

HOSPITAL PROTEST. Cynthia Cousens at a Nov 6 protest outside the Centre Hospitalier Des Vallées De L'Outaouais Hull. Credit: Julie Weisberg

Cynthia Cousens says that 48 hours after being admitted to the emergency ward of a Quebec hospital on Oct 19, she was forced from the hospital’s care because she had once been a man.

Cousens, an active and well-respected member of Ottawa’s trans community since coming out four years ago, says she was forced to leave the Centre Hospitalier Des Vallées De L’Outaouais Hull – undiagnosed, heavily sedated and in critical condition – after revealing to an attending emergency room physician that she had undergone gender reassignment surgery in 2001.

“In the last four years, things were getting better, until this situation with the hospital – and that really hurt me,” says Cousens. “And that’s the first time, in a long time, since I began my transition that I got really stomped on.”

An active educator and public speaker regarding gender identity disorder and her experience as a transsexual, Cousens is the chair of the Ottawa Police Service LGBT Community Liaison Committee. She also has worked for the Victim Assistance Services of Ottawa- Carleton since her appointment to its board in 2001.

In response to the incident, Cousens and her partner Sylvia Durand, who also is a trans woman, plan to file a complaint against the hospital As well, Cousens says she is also considering the possibility of filing a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.

Citing patient confidentiality, Jeanette LeBlanc, a communications officer for the Hull hospital, says she cannot comment on the specifics of Cousens’ accusations.

But LeBlanc says that while she was unaware of the incident itself, it is important to allow any complaint process to run its course – and for all of the facts in a case to be brought to light – before jumping to negative conclusions regarding the actions of any of the hospital’s staff members.

LeBlanc adds that this may have been a case of miscommun-ication or misperception, and not an incident of transphobia.

“We have things that can destroy the reputation of someone because a story was false,” says LeBlanc. “If it is true, there is a reason for it…. We never threw a person out [of the hospital] because she was a transsexual. It’s stupid.”

The past two months have been a difficult time for Cousens – both physically and emotionally.

While contracted to work at a Canadian Forces base over the summer, Cousens – an active member of the Canadian Forces Reserves since 1983 and a retired Toronto police officer – began to suffer from severe flu-like symptoms in July, which may have been caused by a contaminated water supply at the camp. Although the water problems were quickly resolved, Cousens’ illness continued for two more months.

But once the flu-like symptoms subsided, Cousens says she began to experience pain in her right ribs, back and abdomen and began to have difficulty breathing in late September.

As the new set of symptoms began to worsen, Cousens consulted with her family physician who advised her to seek emergency medical treatment for the mysterious ailment.

Upon her doctor’s advice, Cousens, with Durand, sought care at the Centre Hospitalier Des Vallées De L’Outaouais in Hull on Oct 19.

Over the three-day period of her stay at the hospital’s emergency ward, Cousens says she was examined by three different doctors and treated by several nurses, the majority of whom, she says, treated her with “professionalism and compassion.”

There were, however, she says, a small group of nurses and orderlies that were very rough in their treatment, mocking her in French loud enough for all of the patients and ward staff to hear. But since she does not speak French fluently, Cousens says she was unaware of the nurses’ discussion until two other patients came forward to protest their unprofessional manner.

“[They] told me that they both were upset and distressed, because while Sylvia was absent, some of the nurses and orderlies talked openly about me, as ‘Mr Cousens,’ really being a man,” she says. “They found it amusing that I thought I was a woman.”

But it was when she revealed her GRS to the third emergency room doctor, a specialist, that Cousens says she felt she was subjected to the most overt transphobic treatment she has ever suffered at the hands of a public institution.

According to Cousens, unaware of her medical history and after informing her that her medical condition was “serious,” the doctor asked Cousens if she had had major surgery in the recent past. After informing him of her GRS in 2001, Cousens says the doctor’s demeanour changed from that of a concerned medical professional to angry and confused. He then backed away from her.

“I am a trained observer and I have been trained to read people’s expressions. And the expression this man had on his face was revulsion and disgust, from what I saw a moment before,” says Cousens. “And just before he left and turned away to draw the curtains, he said, ‘I’ll be right back, Mr Cousens’ – and right then, I knew I was in trouble.”

After returning with her medical file and a prescription for aspirin, Cousens says the doctor told her, “You have to go to another doctor somewhere else – get dressed and leave now.”

“I couldn’t walk and I know that I wasn’t even in any shape to take public transport,” says Cousens, adding that in addition to wearing an EKG monitor and a full IV, she was heavily sedated on morphine to ease the excruciating pain caused by her then-unknown medical condition. “For me to find myself standing outside the hospital in the state that I was, I was in shock. Because as far as I was concerned, it was life- threatening… I was in no shape to be released from that hospital.”

Cousens says she was ignored by the majority of the emergency room staff on duty once the doctor dismissed her from his care, but was eventually able to call Durand to arrange a ride home, after a young nurse’s aide stepped forward to assist her.

After making arrangements through her family doctor, Cousens received tests and treatment at The Ottawa Hospital on Oct 25, without incident, where she was finally diagnosed with a viral infection within her chest wall and an inflamed lung. She continues to recover at home.