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Elisabeth Lagenbach, a 91-year-old volunteer, says goodbye to Irma Forline, a clinical nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital in downtown Montreal.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

For most Canadians, a challenge on moving day might involve transporting a great-aunt's fine china or maybe keeping track of the pieces of an Ikea bed frame. Perhaps there is a finicky piano, or some cherished antique books.

So spare a moment, then, for the movers getting to work on the streets of Montreal this Sunday. In this transport, movers will shepherd heart patients on cardiac monitors and babies in incubators. Their loads could include a heaving woman in labour or a wheezing patient on a ventilator.

It will be Montreal's great hospital migration, and it is described as the biggest in Canada's history.

Beginning at 7 a.m. on Sunday, 32 ambulances will begin streaming out of Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital on the flank of Mount Royal and ferrying patients to the new McGill University Health Centre "superhospital" 6.3 kilometres away. Continuing in a convoy every three minutes, the ambulances will journey through central Montreal to the new location, known as the Glen site, in the western neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

By the time the day is done, up to 250 patients will have changed location. So will truckloads of expensive medical equipment. On standby overseeing the expedition will be an army of 2,500 doctors, nurses, volunteers and professional movers.

It is, on one level, an historic shift from Montreal's aging and turreted 19th-century hospital on the hill to a modern, state-of-the-art facility, albeit one whose construction contract was marred by corruption allegations.

On another level, it is a sentimental goodbye to one of Montreal's most visible and enduring landmarks, known by Montrealers as "the Vic." The venerable grey lady is 122 years old, her walls redolent with history and her future use uncertain.

How the move will work

Navigating through traffic in Montreal is guesswork at the best of times, and these days, the streetscape is a thicket of potholes and construction cones. Hospital administrators have partnered with Ontario-based Health Care Relocations to manage the move. The company's president, Patrick Moriarty, says the Montreal operation is the most complex he has overseen of the hundreds such moves undertaken around the world, but every detail has been planned, down to the colour-coded T-shirts for staff, a practice borrowed from military aircraft carriers.

Montreal police will be posted at intersections to ensure the ambulances' safe passage. According to calculation, it will take 30 minutes to get patients from bed to bed, and, fortunately for planners, some of the common rites of spring in Montreal – student protests and hockey-playoff revelry – are not in the forecast.

What if a woman goes into labour during the move?

About 4,000 babies have been born at the Royal Victoria each year, and odds are that a pregnant patient will give birth the day her hospital is being moved.

The Royal Victoria will stop admitting patients at 5 a.m. on Sunday, and at the same moment, the emergency room at the Glen site powers up. Technically, a woman in labour can still show up at the Royal Vic at 4:55 a.m., although it will be anyone's guess whether her baby will be born at the Vic, the Glen site or in Montreal traffic en route between the two.

How people feel about leaving the Royal Victoria

Like anyone moving into a fancy new home, staff members are excited about shifting to the cutting-edge, $1.3-billion superhospital. And a glance at the Royal Vic's peeling paint, labyrinthine corridors and chipped linoleum reveals a hospital that is showing its age. But a hospital is about more than beauty. To generations of Montrealers, it is where family members were born, were healed, and some died. The Royal Victoria is the site of North America's first kidney transplant, its first integrated palliative care unit and Canada's first successful birth from frozen eggs. Luminaries including Norman Bethune and John McRae, who wrote In Flanders Fields, worked there, among many others.

A paper scroll the hospital put up on the hallway wall near the entrance this week quickly filled with heartfelt testimonials. A woman visiting her mother who had just had a stroke was emotional. "I'm sad it's closing. This place is a monument to our city. It's old, but it's got soul," Theresa Furrow said.

What will happen to the Royal Vic?

The Royal Vic was built with donations from Canadian railway barons Lord Strathcona and Lord Mount Stephen, and designed by a London architect who modelled it on Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, and took inspiration from the ideas of Florence Nightingale. Built in Scottish baronial style, it has been described as Montreal's own Hogwarts castle, perched at one of the highest vantage points of the city.

(It is not the only health-care facility in Montreal on the move. The Montreal Children's Hospital, Chest Institute and cancer patients from the Montreal General Hospital are also heading to the Glen site, and health-care facilities affiliated with the Université de Montréal are moving to their own new superhospital next year).

Although proposals have surfaced to turn the Royal Vic into private-use condominiums, decision-makers are under pressure to keep its use public. McGill University is proposing to redevelop the site into academic and research space. While that idea is still at the study stages, a purpose may be found in the short-term. Rumour at the hospital is that part of the movie X-Men: Apocalypse could shoot inside the Royal Vic this summer. Although the place is old, few would find its prognosis quite so bleak.

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