Canada's Superior Health Care System

As President Obama struggles to get health care reform passed in the United States, I have paused to reflect on my experiences in the two systems. I have two important stories to tell. Here is the first.

Maria put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. Eli, my then nine-year-old, had been bitten by a bat, she said. On the soccer field.

"A bat?" I said. I must have heard wrong. I was sure I had.

She nodded. "A bat."

Time seemed to collapse around me. Eli had always loved examining wildlife. Cortes Island seemed a benign place for a young scientist to explore. I'd grown up in rattlesnake country, but the critters on Cortes Island, as I'd understood it until now, were benign. Of course the bat would have been, too, I told myself, even though the idea of a bat conjured images of vampires and violation.

I hardly remember the drive home, but I recall the alarm pulsing through me. Images of dogs that foamed at the mouth and wove down the street like drunks, and a horrible set of shots in the stomach crept into my consciousness.

I found Eli playing in his room. He explained that he’d seen a bat lying on the ground near the soccer field. He'd taken some sticks and used them to pick up the bat. "Then it kind of reached over and bit me," he said.

He'd walked towards the soccer field. He'd run into our friend, Gregor. Gregor stood on the sidelines watching the game. "What've you got there, Eli," he asked. Eli showed him the bat. Gregor looked alarmed. He instructed Eli to keep the bat. He mentioned shots. “Then I told Gregor it probably didn’t bite me and I wanted to just forget the whole thing,” he said.

A cardboard box sat on his desk and from within it high pitched moans emerged.

He looked up from his Lego construction. “I know that bat didn’t really bite me. It just kind of brushed me.”

"Are you sure?"

He nodded solemnly.

The local island clinic was closed, so I called the poison control centre in Campbell River. I told the woman on the phone exactly what Eli had said. “He’s pretty sure now the bat didn’t bite him,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. Even if the bat just brushed him, it’s the same as if it bit him.”

“There aren’t any teeth marks, though," I said.

“Listen to me. If the bat was rabid, it’s 100% fatal. But if he gets the shots within forty-eight hours, it’s 100% curable.”

How fast can a mother move when she hears words like this? If you can imagine, that's how fast we got from the house to a water taxi and crossed miles of ocean to get to Campbell River and the nearest emergency room.

Within an hour we were walking into the Campbell River hospital with the bat in a box and the box in a bag and the bag in a basket. From inside this container, the bat continued with its faint cries. Nurses cringed when they learned what the box contained.

And then Canada's health care system saved my son's life

At the front desk, the receptionist asked for Eli’s health care card and I gave it to her. She gave me a card in return that was his hospital admission card. Then she showed us into the emergency room waiting room. I never paid a penny for the incredible care that we received over the rest of the summer, as the Canadian health care system took care of my son.

The emergency room doctor contacted the director of medical care for Vancouver Island. She called and they put me on the phone and I described to her what had happened. She applauded me on having the bat (I will be forever grateful to Gregor for that), and she said she was forty-five minutes away, on an outing with her family, but she would turn around and come to Campbell River to pick up the bat and drive it another forty-five minutes to Comox for testing.

Whether the bat was rabid or not, Eli had to start receiving the antidote. I felt sure we would learn that the bat wasn’t rabid.

That day he got four shots filled with thick pink serum in his arms.

A few days later, the director called. “The bat tested positive,” she said.

We traveled back and forth to the hospital through the summer. Eli received eight more shots. Each time I arrived at the hospital, I simply pulled out the card I’d received the first time and Eli got the shots.

The director of health care called me throughout the summer to check on Eli’s health. Once, they hospital sent the serum by water taxi to Cortes Island so the doctor on the island could give Eli the shot.

I can take two years for rabies to kill you, once you've been infected, I had learned. By the end of the summer, Eli had finished the regime. but I have to admit that I didn’t stop thinking about it completely until he had had his eleventh birthday and the two years were over. The shots worked.

During that summer, I heard stories of deaths that occurred because someone had contact with a bat and thought nothing of it. They didn’t receive care. They died a terrible death.

Eli not only survived, but he thrives, a healthy nearly thirteen-year old boy.

Throughout the entire experience, I could focus completely on my son. I wasn’t once diverted by concerns about the cost of the shots or quality of the care. I didn't have to work my way through voice mail mazes or plead with the representatives of private health insurance companies whose job is to find ways to refuse claims.

My child received the best medical service I can imagine by people who conveyed both competence and humanity. I paid $1200 a month for a private insurance family policy in the years I worked as a freelance writer in New York City. Yes, I could choose any doctor I wanted, but it was hell getting my insurance company to come through on their side and pay for any of it, despite my huge monthly premium. Every interaction with the insurers played out like a battle and I had to work for every dollar they came through with.

And guess what? In Canada, I can go to any doctor I want, too.

The nurses said they’d never seen a braver person, child or adult, undergo the rabies regime. Eli observed with fascination as they administered the shots. He asked questions throughout. Somewhere during the summer, he admitted that the bat really had bitten him, but that when he heard he’d have to get the shots, he got scared.

To make the point again, I never had to fill out any paperwork throughout the ordeal and I never paid a dime for Eli’s care.

Gregor Robertson, whose good judgment helped to save Eli’s life went on to become mayor of Vancouver. My son went on to become a fifth grader, a sixth grader, then a seventh grader.

He says he wants to be a surgeon. He’s seen what good doctors can do. He's learned to love them. But he's very particular about where he wants to study and practice. He knows a system that is compassionate and effective, not perfect, but good. He’s experienced this first hand.

In Canada.

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