i have travelled regularly to the U.S. to accompany a close friend, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, on a dizzying schedule of consultations, surgeries and treatment appointments. What I've seen is shocking because of what it says about the shortcomings of our own system. The corridors of this local hospital are full of engaging nurses. Orderlies make pleasant small talk, interns are curious and attentive, and doctors respectfully explain procedures in breathtaking detail.
At the family doctor's office, a staffer comes out to the parking lot after us to share a personal tale of survival before reaching into the open window of the car to give my stunned relative a hug. A doctor calls that evening with news of encouraging results from that afternoon's CAT scan.
Having just survived a dark and lengthy stint in the Canadian health-care system, I'm bowled over by all this kind attention.
And shocked, as a staunch supporter of free public health care, to find myself sheepishly comparing our system with theirs. Considering my present income and future employment prospects, it would be nonsensical of me to trash our hard-won universal health care in favour of a system driven by private insurance.
As a recent immigrant to the U.S., my friend, who works as a grade-school supply teacher, is afforded her private coverage courtesy of her husband's engineering position at a large multinational.
I shudder to think what her treatment might be if she hadn't married so wisely. The aforementioned kindly American nurse assures me that nobody, regardless of income, is refused this level of quality care. But other sources indicate that she's dead wrong.
According to the U.S. government's own health stats agency, more than 40 million people under 65 lack adequate health-care insurance; the share of children under 18 without insurance is 12 per cent.
Still, after sampling the wonders of compassionate health care, I find myself recalling my own Canadian experience. After receiving emergency surgery in Montreal this summer, I spent a short recovery period, alone and terrified, in a hospital staffed by uniformly angry and distant personnel.
Everyone, from the nurses to my surgeon, refused to explain what had happened to me or what I should expect. Throughout the entire ordeal I was routinely ignored or snapped at.
Upon my release, I returned to Toronto, where I attempted to get a new family doctor. I inquired, hounded and pleaded everywhere. Finally, I was grudgingly accepted by a doctor who only agreed to see me as a favour to a family friend.
I was reminded of my wily Eastern Bloc grandparents, who, in the old country, paid for medical services with bribes of VCRs and cartons of American cigarettes.
Meanwhile, in the absence of any real explanation, I spent many a teary morning calling the hospital for pathology results and advice on what I should be taking. I took to researching medical texts and diagnosed myself with a variety of exotic and deadly disorders. This went on for months. My surgeon never returned a single phone call. Is this the enviable health system lauded by admirers around the world? I wonder. Might my own experience have been the product of some miscommunication or bad luck?
Shrinking resources are clearly a critical issue. My friend's Toronto-based sister, upon hearing the breast cancer diagnosis, immediately requested a mammogram. The earliest appointment she could get was seven months away -- a long time to wait and worry.
Given the choice, I'd rather be an emotionally badgered "patient" than a paying health "customer." But after seeing the respect afforded my friend, I'm reluctant to just suck up crappy treatment as the price we pay for universal access.
I find it hard to swallow that the kindness afforded my friend in the U.S. is simply the product of a shrewd entrepreneurial ethic. I sensed something much more personal and attitudinal than that. I don't have clear answers, but I'm paying attention as policy-makers, critics and citizens debate our proudest public service. The bottom line may turn out to be that Canadians won't continue to support a publically funded system if it can't deliver kind, personal attention.
In the meantime, I'm trying to reschedule a missed medical appointment with my doctor, who doesn't have another opening for several months. Maybe I'll go down to her office, flash her a toothy grin and slip her a carton of cigarettes.