Why You Would Rather Die (or Get Well) in Canada

This week I am taking my wife’s uncle to the hospital for radiation therapy. He is 88 years old and is slowly dying from lung cancer. As a cancer patient he has been visiting the oncology clinic every three weeks since his diagnosis to assess the course of the disease. At his last visit he complained of a lump just under his arm. Three days after that regular appointment he met with a radiation oncologist who decided that a series of radiation treatments would reduce the discomfort caused by the lump. Three days after that visit he was scheduled for a CT scan, two days after than he was marked for the radiation treatment and three days after that, which was yesterday, he began a series of five treatments.

To my mind there are only three times in our existence when we are all truly equal. They are the moment of birth, the moment of death, and the duration of an illness. Other than that we are definitely not all equal. Some of us are fat, some of us are thin, some of us are rich, and some of us are generous, and so on.

I have always been troubled by any government program that assumes we are all equal. I believe in merit in making decisions. Does one car merit my interest because it is more fuel efficient than another? Does the car that does 0 – 60 faster than other cars merit my interest? I don’t drive a Chevrolet Malibu because it may protect jobs in the auto industry because to do so would imply that all cars are equal in value. I drive a Toyota Prius because, for my individual sense of worth, it merits my choice.

I am angered by my public education system that assumes all students are equal. If we were all equal then presidents and prime ministers could be chosen by lottery and not elections. Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S. because the American voter determined that he merited the position. But what happens when merit is inappropriate, possibly unethical and results in the death of innocents.

When we are ill we suffer. The wealthy suffer the same as the poor. The employed suffer the same as the unemployed. The Asian suffers the same as the Arab. Yet it brings me close to tears to watch the debate in the United States of America over health care. As a Canadian I see the U.S. system as one of rewards. The wealthy are rewarded with better health care than the poor. But their pain is the same.

The Canadian system is sometimes referred to as a single payer system. Almost all costs associated with the health of a Canadian are paid for by the government. Access to health care services is based on the seriousness of the illness and never who you are, who you know, or how much money you have. I know that as a college instructor I can expect the same quality of health care as every other Canadian. My mother, who worked as a hairdresser her whole life, was treated for breast cancer with a mastectomy thirty years ago and survived. The illness and its treatment did not wipe out her savings. She did not have to pay for costly insurance that would have been cancelled because she had become a ‘cancer risk’.

Is the system perfect? Absolutely not! In some jurisdictions in Canada you may have to wait up to a year for procedures such as hip replacement or cataract surgery and this has contributed to governments losing elections. Go to an emergency ward on a Friday evening with a non life threatening illness, such as a broken bone, and you may wait several hours for treatment. Show up as a result of a heart attack or an automobile accident and you will receive the treatment you need, on par with any hospital in North America, as quickly as you need it. Insurance or government bureaucrats don’t determine when you are treated or what treatment you are entitled to. Doctors and nurses make those decisions.

So I say to my American neighbours, recognize that we are all equal when we are ill. Embrace a system that treats us as equals because this is one of the rare times that we truly are. If you are more fortunate than others then do what Canadians do, donate to your hospitals and get a wing named after you. It is not socialism, liberalism, communism, conservatism, and it is not about what God wants us to do. Universal health care is simply the human thing to do.

Back to my experience with my wife’s uncle, we arrive at the Oncology department of the Montreal General Hospital exactly on time and present his health card. We are directed to a waiting room. In less than five minutes he is brought into the treatment room and we are back in the car in less than a half hour. Keep in mind that these treatments will not prolong his life, just make it more comfortable. I have never heard of an insurance policy that had a comfort clause for an 88 year old. And I know that should the day come when I may need this kind of treatment it will be there for me.

About Ken

I am the Program Coordinator and Chairperson of the Computer Science Technology program at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. I am also a Program Consultant to and part-time instructor in the Computer Institute of Concordia University's School of Extended Learning.

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