Publicly funded, universal healthcare: when it’s about me it gets real personal

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with what my doctor characterized as an “intermediate stage” malignant melanoma.  Surgery was the only option, so within 10 days I was at Lions Gate Hospital in my home town of North Vancouver, BC, having a number of procedures.  It may have faults, but when the chips were down our Canadian public healthcare system came through in spades for me.  It was fast, it was efficient and I got the very best of care, no questions or insurance forms required.  In what now seems like an extremely ironic turn of events, only a few week ago I had engaged in the Obamacare debate with some friends from south of the border on the day the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama.


At the time I was simply lending my Canadian perspective to a very passionate debate on the merits, or lack thereof, of public health care.  One very well-educated, democratically inclined friend was carrying the torch for the benefits of public health care, against a strong tide of opposition.  She was happy to have me weigh in with my personal experience – even if south of the border we Canadians have a bit of a reputation as pinko socialists (but very nice polite ones!!).   She had had her own health scare and was appalled that her insurance company would not cover the cost of a diagnostic test (a mammogram) that would give the best early warning of breast cancer.  It seemed the insurer would rather wait for her to actually develop a life threatening illness than pay for a test that would allow early detection, less expensive care and a better therapeutic outcome (that’s insurance speak for “she lived”).  Maybe it’s me, but that just seems counter-intuitive.

Needless to say, at this particular juncture in my life I’m proudly waving the Maple Leaf for our public healthcare system.   Here is how my day in the public healthcare system went on Wednesday.   I was admitted at 7:00am into the Surgical Services Unit for day surgery.  After checking in, my first stop was Nuclear Medicine (like that inspires hope and confidence . . . seriously, can’t they come up with a better name) where I had shots of a radioactive tracer into the offending site on my upper thigh.   Stingy, but not too bad.   Then wait while the tracers dispersed through my lymphatic system, and no coffee to pass the time, damn it – I was not allowed to have anything to eat or drink.  Two hours later back to Nuclear for a Gamma Scan (again . . .about that name – did none of these people grow up during the Cold War?)   But the Gamma scanner is actually pretty cool.  It does a full body scan and where concentrations of radioactivity are picked up it creates a detailed 3D map of the lymphatic system in that area.  The scan takes about 40 minutes and it’s completely painless and trauma free – no sharp pokey things.  The 3D map is uploaded to the surgical suite where my surgeon used it to pinpoint exactly which lymph nodes had to be removed  – there were 3 of them.   I can’t even imagine what that scan cost, and  thanks to publicly funded healthcare I don’t need to worry about that.  I needed it so I got it.  When it is your body and your life involved, that is pretty wonderful.

Back in the surgical unit it was time to get suited up for the main act.  Lovely backless gown, “robe”and sexy matching green knit surgical stockings with little booties.   I’m sure I was looking particularly lovely – thank goodness cameras are not allowed.   It must have been quite a surprise for my nurse, who was only distracting me with idle chit-chat while she set up my IV, when I burst into tears when she asked “so what would you have been doing today if you weren’t here”.  Little did she know what a loaded question that was.   I should have been in Baltimore, packing the car and getting ready to head to Newport for a romantic long weekend with my sweetheart.   Surgery had NOT been on the program.  She decided that I’d had a rough enough day and it was time for some TLC, so instead of going back to the waiting room they found a spare bed for me in recovery, wrapped me in warm blankets right out of the warming thingamajig and suggested that if I asked for it, they would be able to provide “a little something for anxiety”.  I didn’t have to be asked twice! At the appointed hour my surgeon and anesthetist showed up, checked all the details for about the 20th time and autographed my leg; they actually have to sign their initials on the area they will be operating on.    The last thing I remember is the anesthetist putting a comforting hand on my shoulder, saying “just relax, I will take very good care of you” and then . . .nothing.  Going under a general is nothing like falling asleep.  One minute you are wondering if it’s actually going to work for you and the next thing you are waking up in recovery.  And thanks to an extensive pre-surgical consult for the first time ever I woke up and was not sick.  Not great, but not sick either.  What a relief.

Catching up on some comedies and prepping for NOLA next year.

I simply cannot say enough about the quality of care I received the whole way through this long, emotional and clearly stressful day.  Every single person I was in contact with was kind, soft-spoken, thoughtful and seemed genuinely concerned for both my health and immediate comfort.   I went in with the attitude that it was going to be a long day, there was no point being impatient, and I got that back in spades.  At every turn there was a comforting touch, a warm blanket or a thoughtful word.   Every single person treated me like an intelligent, if somewhat emotional, person.  Every procedure and outcome was clearly explained and I was asked constantly if I understood what they were telling me and whether I had any questions.  Maybe it was the shell shocked look on my face, but I think not.  I think we are just really, really lucky to have an amazing healthcare system, and that includes the people who work in it.  I truly cannot thank them enough for the kindness they showed me.   It really did mean the world and made a huge difference on a very difficult day.

I’m now 3 days post-op and – woo hoo – I get to have a shower today.  I also really need to go out, even if just for a coffee;  starting to get a little stir crazy, even with all the drugs.  Oh yes, the drugs  . . .started out on morphine but that makes me itch like there are bugs under my skin (I’d make a terrible heroin addict) so I am on to a new narcotic.  Not sure what it is, but it works like a charm. Pain – well so long as I take the magic pills every four hours it’s just fine.  Waking up in the morning is a bit rough, but I’m pretty good at getting one of those down and hardly even moving.   And the incisions, while fairly horrific to look at right now with all the staples, are healing nicely.  There is no doubt I will have a large scar on my leg, but given the alternative I’m just fine with that.

And all I can say to my amazing friends and co-workers is THANK YOU.  Your kindness and support has been overwhelming.  From all the messages wishing me good luck the day before surgery, the thoughtful gifts, cards and food you have dropped off and just simply the regular check ins to make sure I am OK – they all mean the world to me.  And my sweetheart has been a rock of support.  Safe to say that neither one of us imagined that our long-planned and much-anticipated holiday to Newport  would be so badly derailed, or that nine months into our relationship we would be dealing with a health crisis of this magnitude.  Having the ‘flu is one thing, dealing with a cancer scare is something else entirely.  You are amazing and we will make this time up.

I watched it the Wilco concert live streaming on NPR, here’s the hyperlink to the video archive.  Impossible Germany and California Stars in one concert – fantastic.


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