Burnaby Hospital, in the heart of Metro Vancouver. Photo: Vancouver Sun
I don’t usually share personal details on my blog, but I don’t mind telling those who will read this about my recent experience of using our Canadian health care system. I should point out that calling it “Canadian” is a bit of a misnomer, as health budgets are managed by provinces. However, the Canada Health Act is federal legislation, and it dictates how provinces (like British Columbia, or B.C., where I live) distribute health care to all Canadians.
I’ve heard of health care stories in the USA where people are stuck covering large bills for insurance and treatment. I’ve also heard of insurance companies altering their terms of coverage after people get sick. I’ve read testimonials of people who are destitute because they got sick and were stuck with large costs. Some lost their ability to earn a living because of these illnesses, and lose homes and valued possessions trying to pay their bills. How commonplace this is I cannot say.
Here’s my experience, with as much detail as I can recall.
One morning just under a couple of months ago I noticed a lump in my groin. It was not sore, but big enough standing up that it bulged out of my lower abdomen about the size of an apple sliced in half. It was not a good day for me after I noticed this, as I feared the worse.
I rang my family doctor, but as it turns out he was on one of his rare vacation breaks. I was anxious enough that I felt that I should check it right away, so I attended a local clinic that evening. When I arrived about 7:30pm I was told that the waiting list was full, but I could check another clinic which they called to check for me. There was no wait at the other clinic, so I drove about 10 minutes to the second clinic.
I waited about five minutes in the lobby, then was told I could wait inside one of the patient rooms. In there I sat about 25 minutes. The doctor came in, had a look and told me that I had a hernia. At the time he suggested that I could wait for my family doctor to return from vacation, and get a referral for a surgeon then. I left the clinic that evening with a big load off my mind.
When I arrived home I had a message to call the clinic back. Some of the anxiety crept back in at that point. The doctor told me upon reflection that he didn’t want to take any chances, and that I should go to emergency to have it checked out. In rare cases hernia’s can result in twisted bowels, and cause more damage inside.
I know that emergency wards in Metro Vancouver hospitals can have long waits. The trick I’ve discovered is to get there early in the morning, between 6:30 & 7am. This is the time usually when the evening cases are looked after, and with a shift change you get fresh staff.
I arrived at Burnaby Hospital emergency just around 7am the morning after my visit to the clinic. There was no one in the waiting room, and the admitting nurse told me that the previous night there had been a crowded room with a four-hour wait. After about 10 minutes wait watching a sports channel on an overhead TV, I was invited into the emergency ward and into a small room to be seen by a doctor.
A doctor came in to see me after a few minutes, inspected me and confirmed it was a hernia. He then gave me a referral to an abdominal surgeon. He said that he would call the surgeon’s office when they opened that morning to give them a heads up, and that I should call to book an appointment.
I booked the appointment with the surgeon’s office that day, and got an appointment about a week or so later. When I attended the appointment with the surgeon, he explained that I had what was known as an inguinal hernia. They happen commonly with men and women, and if not repaired can lead to further health problems. There are different kinds of surgeries, but the surgeon said that the best option would require a 2 to 3-inch opening in my abdominal wall, and a “net” inserted inside to close the hernia.
The surgeon told me that the wait time could be up to six months or more. He assured me that as long as I wasn’t over-exerting myself, I should be fine until the surgery. I was doing daily workouts at that time, and asked him if I could continue them. He said as long as there was no pain, I should be fine. For the next month I would be running regularly in a morning bootcamp, and doing muscle workouts including abdominal exercises with no side effects.
As I left the surgeon’s office I was asked by the office administrator if my schedule was flexible to allow for any last minute availabilities for operating time. I said that I was available on short notice, and had no plans to leave the city in the near future.
To my surprise I received a call about a week or 10 days after my appointment with the surgeon. I was told that there would be operating time on December 1st, just less than 8 weeks after discovering the lump.
At this point I should point out an important detail. I’ve not spent a single penny of my own money for any of this treatment. The only time money exchanged hands is when I forgot my BC Card Card at the clinic. I returned the next day with the card and I was reimbursed in full for the $60 the clinic visit would have cost.
I am not wealthy, and as a consultant I rely upon my spouse’s work health care coverage to pay for B.C. medical premiums. Never once for any of the doctor or hospital visits was I asked for money, or did I need to pull out my credit card to cover any cost.
December 1st arrives – the operation
A hernia operation is day surgery. You are instructed not to have any food, water or chew gum for 12 hours before surgery. To do so could lead to blockage of your air passage during surgery from food particles or fluids. I only wet my whistle while brushing my teeth that day, but never swallowed any liquids.
At just after 10am I arrived at main admitting for Burnaby Hospital. This would be the first time in my 47 years that I would be put under general anesthetic, and have surgery. Coincidentally, I spent a couple days in Burnaby hospital in 1971 over Hallowe’en (I was nine years-old, and really missed going out for candy) waiting to have my appendix removed. Fortunately the swelling subsided, and my mom (who was a nurse) pushed back on the surgeon who recommended removing the appendix. I was released without having surgery. Thirty-eight years later I was back, and going under the knife for real this time.
After getting through admitting I headed upstairs (with my mom again) to the Pre-Op Admissions room. I said see ya later to my mom, then relaxed with a newspaper and listened to a podcast on my iPhone. After about 10 minutes the nurse asked me to come over, get weighed, and to get into my hospital gown.
This would be the first of about six nurses I would deal with during my few hours in hospital. I can only rave about how professional and pleasant all of these women were. My mom was a nurse for many years, and I know you need the patience of a saint and a pleasant “bedside manner” (literally) for the job. To all of the nurses at Burnaby Hospital, I tip my hat to you.
I was walked through the whole process by the nurse who explained what would happen that day, and my likely recovery time. The only time I wrinkled my nose during the whole process was when I was told I needed to insert a suppository for pain relief. It really wasn’t that bad, and I have to admit the pain was much less than I thought it would be.
First I was given an antacid mixture, as apparently the surgery can cause stomach upset. Next I was hooked up to an intravenous drip by another wonderful nurse (every nurse introduced themselves by their first name, but doctors introduced by their last name), and basically told to take it easy. I looked at the clock, and by this time about an hour had passed. At just past 11:30am I was wheeled into the area beside the operating rooms. It was much quieter around here, and most staff wore masks and hair nets.
Another nurse came over and took my vitals again. Pulse and blood pressure was all pretty normal, and while I was anxious inside about going under and being cut open, I was pretty relaxed on the exterior. The anesthetist doctor came over and introduced herself, and gave a quick explanation of how I would be put to sleep during the procedure.
General anesthetic was the part I was most anxious about. I’ve heard stories of people taking days to fully recover from it. I didn’t like the idea of being “dopey” or out of touch with my environment.
I finally got to see the surgeon again. He gave a warm smile (he didn’t have a mask) which gave me confidence going in. He took a pen and marked the side where I would be cut open.
A few minutes later – nearly exactly at the proposed time promised, 12:00pm – I was wheeled into the operating room. Another nurse was in there preparing for the operation. She was extremely warm and asked me if I’d have had surgery before. “No,” I said. “Are you nervous?” she asked. “Yeah, a little bit,” I tried to say bravely.
The anesthetist came forward and held an oxygen mask to me. Breathe deeply, I was told. You’ll feel a warm tingling in your arm, she said. After about eight deep breaths I was out cold.
The next thing I know I’m being wheeled back into the room I was just in. I heard someone say, “Okay, we’re all done.” I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the clock, and nearly an hour had passed. I moved a bit and knew that there was a bandage on my groin. Whaddya know, they were done.
I was told that I’d be there for another 2 hours or so post-operation. What I really wanted was a glass of juice, or water at least. Ice water was provided after I was wheeled out of the OR area, and back into the pre/post-op room. My nurse made sure I was comfortable, and I proceeded to relax quietly as the anesthetic wore off. Eventually she gave me a cup of apple juice to get my blood sugar back up. It was delicious.
At about 3pm the nurses called my mom to come and pick me up. At 3:15pm I slowly pulled my street clothes back on, feeling just a little dizzy. My mom showed up with a wheelchair, and I was wheeled out to the parking lot. Off home we went, just under six hours after arriving at Burnaby Hospital.
It’s been 2 full days since I headed out to the hospital. The pain from my surgery has been nominal. I’ve only taken 2 Tylenol Threes since the surgery, and one 400mg Ibuprofen last night before bed. Walking and sitting is more comfortable now, but my gut is still delicate. I’m told that in 2 weeks things will feel pretty back to normal, and to not lift anything over 20 lbs. until then.
Looking back on this whole experience, the efficiency of our medical system, and the generous care I received, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of Canada’s health care principles and the laws that govern them. If I was required to pay out of pocket all at once for this care, there is no doubt I could not have afforded it.
To those who go to considerable lengths to disparage our system, and to confuse people (particularly our American neighbours) about how well it works, you have my experience to judge it by.
Thank you, doctors, nurses and Burnaby Hospital. I am grateful for your care, and for the peace of mind knowing I was in your expert hands.