I watch a lot of television news and I confess a lot of it is American. I follow the whole Obama health care reform controversy with a smile. I live in Canada.
A little over five years ago the mitral valve in my heart failed. I was sitting at my computer and noticed my heart beating quicker than usual. I don't usually feel my heart pounding but that day I did. I called work and they insisted I go to emergency.
I went to the walk-in clinic near our home and not emerg. A doctor at the clinic listened to my heart and said that there was a definite problem. He wanted to call an ambulance and rush me to emerg. I refused. He said that I may have had a heart attack. I assured him that I hadn't. My dad had a heart condition. I know heart attacks. I did not have a heart attack.
They called my wife and she came to the clinic, picked me up and drove me to the hospital. At emerg they took some blood and soon knew I had not had a heart attack. This was the good news. The bad news was that the hospital doctors all agreed something, possibly a valve, was wrong in my heart. They booked me into the cardiac institute for tests.
Within days I was taking a stress test. I failed.
I was booked into one of the local hospitals for an angiogram. The doctor threads a tube from your crotch up to your heart — I always knew my crotch was directly connected to my heart. The doctor injects a dye and watches how it behaves. A goodly amount of blood backed up and swirled about aimlessly with each heart beat. The doctor had confirmation; my mitral valve leaked "like a sieve."
At the time I was in my late fifties but I had the body of an eighteen-year-old, hey this is my story, and so the doctors hinted that I might be a good prospect for undergoing the first robotic repair of a mitral valve in Canada. Ah, payback for all those years of jogging.
My valve was repaired by Dr. Alan Menkis at the controls of a da Vinci surgical robot. The incision was only a few inches long and the scar is hidden in a chest muscle crease under my right nipple. No split breast bone. No huge scar. And I'm healthy. My valve itself was surgically repaired. No pig valve, no mechanical valve, no life-long drug regimen.
And the cost? It was covered by OHIP, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, the government medical plan.
I could tell you more stories. I could tell you about my fifty-year-old nephew and how he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in his teens. OHIP took care of his treatment. He wasn't my sister's only child to need expensive and very sophisticated medial treatment. Another child required delicate brain surgery. Both boys were treated successfully and my sister and her husband were not left financially strapped. OHIP covered all.
I could tell even more stories but let's be honest, when I am done you might simply reply, "Well, we heard of a Canadian who...," fill in the blank space with some medical horror story. The problem is that my stories and yours are simply anecdotes. Newspapers and television love 'em; they put a human face to a complex problem. But anecdotal stories are not the whole story, for that we must look to numbers.
According to the latest figures that I could find that the United States spends 1.5 times more money on health care as expressed as a percent of GDP than Canada. I understand that Americans are living longer than ever, but not as long as people in dozens of other countries, including Canada. But, we can even argue about these numbers. Even if they are accurate, what do they actually represent?
A recent poll by CTV in Canada reported that "fifty-five percent of Canadians thought the health care system should be more public, only 12 per cent thought it should be private, and the rest thought Canada had struck the right balance between the two options."
It is all too confusing. All I know is that I am 62, and my heart is still beating thanks to Dr. Menkis, da Vinci and OHIP. I'm happy to be a Canadian.
Addendum: I did a Google search of the Internet and discovered that a lot of brilliant medical stuff developed in the U.S. is used for the first time outside of the States. It is not unheard of for Canada, France or Great Britain to take U.S. medical creativity and use it to chalk up medical firsts.
As for the treatment of older folk, my wife's uncle got a new hip when he was in his eighties and his wife, also in her eighties, got a new knee. She is now in her nineties and looking at having her other knee replaced. OHIP, the government plan, picks up all costs and there is no dispute over age.