Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

Year 2000 at the Heart Institute

While visiting with a friend who had suffered a heart attack, I asked after the name of his cardiologist, thinking it might be the one who sent me a tree for Christmas. It wasn’t!

A few days before Christmas 1998, there was a knock at the door. It was a delivery man from Fines with the biggest bouquet of red flowers I had ever seen. It was from Doctor D., a cardiologist with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, “Canada's largest and foremost cardiovascular health centre dedicated to understanding, treating and preventing heart disease,” not to mention heart transplants.

I asked my wife if it was proper for one man to send another man a bouquet of flowers, for whatever reason, even as a thank you. She pointed out that the poinsettia is a tree, not a flower, and that it is perfectly acceptable for men to send trees to one another.

I first met with Doctor D. at a planned meeting to discuss bug fixes and enhancements to the Institute’s patient database and user interface after returning to Ottawa from Montréal. His previous consultant, who could not get out ZIM consulting fast enough, had asked me to take over. The bug fixes and what were considered minor enhancements only took a few weeks, maybe a month, but Doctor D. was obviously happy enough with my work to send me a tree for Christmas.

It was while performing these modifications that I recommended to Doctor D. that the Institute upgrade to the latest version of ZIM so as to avoid any year 2000 issues. He declined. He said that the Institute would be migrating the ZIM application to PowerBuilder and that the new system would be in place before the new millennium, which was slightly more than a year away at the time. PowerBuilder was no ZIM!

Doctor D. was very much concerned about the year 2000. He invited the consultant who had convinced him to switch from ZIM to PowerBuilder to meet with us in his office where he demanded his personal guarantee that they would have the replacement system up and running before then. The consultant's assurances came in the form of, "If ZIM can do it, we can do it, and do it better and faster."

I was now very much an expert in Doctor D.’s complex heart patient information system and offered to help the PowerBuilder team with their learning curve. “Not to worry,” the consultant bragged, dismissing my offer; “We’re fast learners.” Not fast enough, as it would turn out.

I was in Montréal, having breakfast with the friends with whom my wife and I had spent New Year’s Eve, when I got a message on my beeper asking me to call the Heart Institute. The worst predictions for the year 2000 had come true. In a matter of hours, I was standing with Doctor D. and the nurse-operator of his system trying to make sense of the dates that were appearing on the computer screen (which mainly had to do with scheduled treatments and medicine dispensation).

One of my first questions was: “Where is the PowerBuilder replacement?”

"It will not be available for a few more months," was the reply.

PowerBuilder had missed the crucial year 2000 deadline; a deadline that, in the case of the Heart Institute’s patient database, could mean the difference between life and death. Performing a major software upgrade in the middle of a crisis of this magnitude where lives may be at stake is not recommended, unless there is no other choice.

I asked Doctor’s D.’s nurse if she could revert to a manual recordkeeping operation until the PowerBuilder application was ready. She had already done so as soon as the problem became evident, and she could continue doing so for as long as it took for PowerBuilder to get its act together. I recommended that they continue with manual recordkeeping. In my professional opinion, it was the safest course of action until the PowerBuilder application was ready.

My Lucette was not as forgiving when it came to situations like this. “You’re never going to get rich that way,” she said. She would have recommended that they upgrade then and there and charged a small fortune for doing so; after all, it was their mistake for not listening to my advice in the first place.

She was wrong about the decision I should have made, and mostly right about not getting rich that way, but it was never about the money. If it had been, I would never have blown the whistle way back when.

My business had not suffered because I offered honest advice for a reasonable fee; quite the opposite. I would never get rich, but by the same token, I never thought there would come a time when I would again lack for money. The government abandoning ZIM and setting an example for the private industry to follow was only part of it.