Gary Horton | Oh, Canada: Free But Not Henry Mayo

Gary Horton
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I need to buy a new T-shirt. “I went to Canada and all I got was free surgical scars.” 

Many know my wife and I are avid boaters. Each summer we spend two or three weeks up in the San Juans and the Canadian Gulf Islands. These are just northwest of Seattle and boast some of the most calm and beautiful boating in North America.  

Two weeks ago, Thursday, Carrie and I headed out to Victoria, Canada, for a much-planned 10-day cruise through both the American and Canadian islands. We’d planned it for most of the year and we were heading into wonderful weather. 

So much for plans. 

Two hours after we arrived on Thursday I became violently stomach ill. As much as it hurt, I chalked it up to food poisoning and spent the next two and half days toughing it out, living through all the not-happy things one experiences with food poisoning. Only it turned out it wasn’t food poisoning and I’d lost valuable time. Sunday morning, I threw in the towel and called for an ambulance. 

Canadian 911 was super quick and helpful. The ambulance arrived in minutes. I was whisked off to the local hospital for a CT scan. Within 30 minutes I got the bad news: Complete intestinal blockage, most liked from prior surgical scar invasion of the intestines. Ugh. In went the dreaded tube through my nose into my stomach, my constant hated companion for the next five days. Treatment would be no water, no food for the next 48 hours in a non-surgical approach, and if that didn’t do the trick, full-on abdominal surgery would be required. 

Forty-eight hours of tortuous treatment later, surgery was indeed required and last Tuesday I was off to the surgical unit where they opened me up, cut the scar tissue out, and straightened the pipes. 

I lucked out. My Canadian surgeon was as inspirational as she was competent. Now, all that was left was five days of recovery while stabilizing essential blood electrolytes. Not fun – as most readers know. Hospital stays are never vacations and this was a particularly bad one. 

I had landed in one of the oldest and largest hospitals in Victoria. It was a noisy train station of gut patients bustled in and out at all hours of night and day. Interruptions were constant and post-surgery rest was a just a dream. By the time I was finally released I was a broken man, drained of all energy and spirit, save that the system indeed saved my life with the help of exceptional nurses and surgeons. 

The experience was rough. I dreamed for Henry Mayo! Instead, old everything, and nurses at their wits’ end due to shortage of staff up and down the hospital chain. How they kept their wits I don’t know. Twelve hours on, 12 off, with constant interruptions from a patient load far exceeding their capacity. Oh, the stories to tell… 

The nursing shortage in Canada is largely due to the US: Canadian socialized health care nurses have been lured to the US to become super-high-paid traveling nurses, often earning up to three times their normal pay. Who wouldn’t leave? Indeed, this same problem plagues our own medical institution as leadership at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital will attest.  

My experience ended up quite mixed. I received excellent surgery intervention and had many exceptionally capable nurses. However, the whole thing became hellish as nurses were completely overwhelmed and unable to deliver steady care, despite their very best intentions. And four to a room – with one man hallucinating while recovering from delirium tremens, completely upending both our shared room and most of our wing, as well. I may never again touch alcohol to my lips… 

The most impactful part of my Canadian health care experience was when I wchecked out of the hospital. “Check out” there means the nurse tells you what to do in post-recovery. You sign the instructions, you walk out, and you go home. I told my nurse I was American and would need to pay some sort of bill. She had no idea how to charge me. I walked out never opening my wallet – and I’ll need to loop back to get them paid.  

Canadians don’t worry about finance-wrecking hospital bills. No medical bill anxieties at all. Think about that.  

In retrospect, the Canadian plusses: High-quality, dedicated care givers. Fast access for real emergencies. Zippo for payment. The negatives: Completely overwhelmed system needing tons of investment, right away. Very slow access and long waits for ordinary care and elective surgeries. I had been life/death and they blessedly jumped me to the head of the line. I’m grateful and thankful. But it was hellish far too frequently. 

Still, there’s plus and minuses between our systems. Here, if you’ve got good insurance, when emergencies come, you’re covered, save sometimes substantial deductibles and ticky-tack deductible fights. But you’ve got access, competence and state-of-the-art delivery. The key is coverage.  

Pity those Americans without coverage. Our unique problem is that we’re willing to kick huge swaths of Americans to the curb for lack of insurance. Emergency room crashing only goes so far. It’s far too dysfunctional. We’re paperwork-overloaded. 

Our American problem remains our lack of compassion for the uncovered and ever-increasing premiums for those who do have coverage. We just don’t want folks to have anything, “for free.” There, health care is a right. Here, it’s a privilege and we’re willing to let many suffer or go broke. 

In the end, pick your cure or your poison. Both systems struggle with deep institutional challenges. 

I can’t thank Canada enough. They saved my life – on the cheap. Having insurance, I’d surely prefer our system. But know that what would have cost easily $150,000 here, was nearly free there. 

Insured Americans are largely health care golden as we deliver some of the best health care in the world. But pity those without. It remains for America to craft a solution for all Americans – and for our visitors here, as I was cared for in Canada… with compassion as a person and not a profit target for a giant, faceless insurance corporation. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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