Why a Canadian had to go to the US to get free surgery
‘You can never look at it the same way again once it leaves you stranded on the highway.’
That was what my husband said after his 1987 Honda Civic had left him high and dry on a Saskatchewan highway in the dead of winter. He couldn’t trust our car after that so that’s when we decided it was time to get a new one.
This sentiment sums up how I feel about our healthcare system. It’s a little sad, but I can’t unknow what I know …..the system is unreliable.
I grew up in Western Canada, and I think like most Canadians at times I was almost arrogant in my pride of our healthcare system.
This idealistic image of our healthcare system started to crack for me when one of my medical specialists abruptly retired. I was left to start from scratch to ensure my particular condition was followed. I felt like a medical orphan.
There were other things too that would come up from time to time about our system that left me unsettled, but I tried to ignore it.
It all came apart for me in 2013 when I was on a waitlist for brain surgery. Yes brain surgery! I was encouraged by my local neurosurgeon to see a specialist in Toronto, Ontario who would book the surgery.
Even though the procedure could be done in Alberta, since it related to my rare condition, there were no surgeons in Alberta who had the necessary experience. Both of my physicians agreed (me included) this was the best route. I was paying my own travel and any incidentals, but I felt good about the decision, and I was grateful for the option to ensure my quality care. They told me it was ‘no, problem – we do this all the time.’ I tried to stay healthy while I waited for the call.
In that same year while awaiting surgery, and on the advice of my doctors, I travelled to participate in a longitudinal study of my condition at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC. Since my condition is rare this was a special opportunity for me to meet with North American experts at little cost or inconvenience to myself.
While reviewing the MRI scans that they had ordered on site the medical team discovered that my health situation had become dire while awaiting surgery. They said,
‘I can believe you look as good as you do. You shouldn’t be able to even stand up. You’re situation is serious. You need surgery now!’
This proclamation was followed by a flurry of phone calls and emails to my Ontario surgeon from my NIH team, and myself. When I returned to Canada the next day, my Ontario surgeon called me at home a day or two later to ensure me that he would have a surgery date for me in the next few weeks.
Unfortunately that surgery booking never happened. It turned out that the Ontario hospital refused to book the surgery unless Alberta would guarantee to pay the full cost of the procedure.
What you need to know is that healthcare is funded provincially. Sure you can go to the medicentre while visiting grandma in BC, but big ticket items are not covered dollar for dollar.
My surgery was a large budgetary expense that quickly caught the eye of some greedy bureaucrat’s attention so they decided to denied my surgery, or at least hold it hostage. To them, I was an rich Albertan, not a Canadian. They basically said Ontario’s provincial health care budget is tight so we need to save our operating budget for Ontario residences unless……. you can pay in full.
Wait, this about money?
Short answer: Yes.
The Health Act of Canada makes it illegal for them to charge me personally for surgery, or for me to offer to pay for the surgery myself so they decided to go after my provincial government. By “they” I mean hospital administration, not doctors, and by the provincial government I mean more “bureaucrats”.
So… Now what?
This particular stand by this Ontario hospital seemed to a surprise to my all physicians as well, and there was little they could do to help.
So I phoned (via relay), I emailed, and I emailed some more. The red tape was horrific and unfortunately my Ontario surgeon was unable to help since he was….well…from Ontario so AB Health wouldn’t talk to him.
My local surgeon was a disappointment too, but it’s hard to blame him since this is not what he signed up for…..he did cancel my spot on the Alberta surgical wait list for me after the Ontario surgeon accepted me though. Unfortunately this turned out to be bad since I may need that…..
And I really did, because 6 weeks later I was officially denied funding. I was left with nothing. No surgery, no surgical wait list, nadda.
By this time I was getting pretty sick as well. When I called to see my local surgeon after my rejection his office said he was unable to see me for another 6 more weeks.
That would be 3 months from when my health situation was ‘dire’ to even see someone – let alone have surgery.
At this point, I was desperate. I tried politicians, the minister, etc., but I hesitated to use the media. Maybe that would have helped? I am not sure, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make this mess public.
By this time it was early December 2013 and I was pretty low; I felt helpless, bitter, sick, and abandoned.
The following week, the research medical team at NIH contacted me to see how I was recovering from surgery. They were in shock that I had yet to be even booked for the procedure. Some of the surgeons at NIH actually tried phoning AHS and AB Health for me, but once they saw what I was dealing with they tried something else…
They booked me a surgery!
They were able to book me a 12 hour, 2 surgical team surgery for a date that was actually 2 weeks sooner than I could even SEE my local surgeon for a consultation. ( They apologized for the delay.)
It turns out since I was a part of their study they could offer me surgery even as an “international’ participant. Free. I just had to get to the US.
I spoke to the NIH surgeon who offered to do the surgery. He was very experienced with my condition, and the other surgeon I had already met. He had done hundreds of these surgeries as well.
I decided to go for it. I did try to call my local surgeons to get their thoughts, but neither had time to speak to me. The Ontario surgical team, and my GP though were very happy that I had finally found an option. I found out that the Ontario team had saved a date for me right up until I called hoping it would work out with the bureaucrats.
So me, a proud Canadian, flew 3000 miles for free surgery in the US capitol. I received wonderful care, and returned home to continue my recovery about 4 weeks later.
So there it is….
I can’t tell you how to feel about our healthcare system, but for me, I can’t go back. Even though I’ve had some great experiences with our healthcare system, I have also seen the other side, and when I needed it most it let me down.
Every time I try to forget what happened to me I find myself drifting back to the memory of me being symbolically abandoned on that cold Saskatchewan highway.
The spell is broken.