Living proof that public health care works

A story about a modern miracle that saved my grandson's life

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January 25, 2013


CALGARY, AB, Jan. 25, 2013/ Troy Media/ – This is a story about a little medical miracle and the medical system that made it possible.

My first grandson entered the world Nov. 30th as an extreme preemie, a little more than 25 weeks through gestation. At birth, he weighed just 660 grams – a pound-and-a-half – a tiny fetus who had all his fingers and toes, eyes and ears, but who clearly did not look like he was ready to enter the world.

I later learned that his odds of survival were about 50/50; there’s no question that a generation ago those odds would have been remote at best. His mother, too, was in mortal danger, suffering from a rare but vicious pre-natal condition known as HELLP.

Today, less than eight weeks after that miraculous day, my grandson has filled out to the point that he looks like a healthy baby. He’s beefed up to three pounds – double his birth weight – is almost ready to breathe unassisted, and can see, hear and fill his diapers like any other baby.

His triumph over the biggest challenge of his young life is a tribute to his own fighting spirit, to doting and nurturing parents and to high technology and constant care of the medical staff at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Since the moment he abruptly entered this world, he has been under constant, round-the-clock care, in which a health care professional has been in his room every five minutes, fussing over monitors, tweaking medication, testing and reporting.

There have some scary moments – especially early on when my grandson developed an infection that threatened to develop into potentially fatal necrosis of the colon. The fact that the ailment was detected early, and treated with antibiotics and blood transfusions, averted the crisis and kept little Ronan on the road to growth.

He is doing extraordinarily well, but is not yet in the clear. There will almost certainly be more scares large and small before this little guy won’t need steady vigilance from the medical staff who watch over him with professional dedication and – dare I say it? – love.

Yet, this is not just another story about the miracle of modern medicine; it’s a story about another modern miracle that saved his life – the miracle of universal access.

The cost of staff, modern technology and constant care is phenomenal – certainly, in the case of my grandson, in six figures and counting. We are a middle-class family, but hardly wealthy. If we lived in the United States, it’s hard to imagine that people of our means could expect to experience the care we’ve seen here, in Canada. If our private insurance covered this treatment at all in the U.S., at what point would the phone calls start coming, pressuring us to scale back on the expenses? Would we be preparing to remortgage the house? Would the standard of care slip as expenses mounted?

This is not intended to be a sweeping defence of the Canadian health care system. The systems, of course, vary province by province, as does the efficiency with which each operates. In my home province of Alberta, serious questions have been raised about runaway costs, ridiculous wait times, queue jumping and outcomes that rate lower than some other provinces when measured against the money spent. Surely, these and other shortcomings need to be addressed.

But what need not be addressed, in fact, what must be nurtured, is the concept of universal access – the philosophy that the care you receive is based on need rather than means. Without the level of access my daughter and her family experienced, there is a very real chance my precious grandson wouldn’t be the healthy young child with a lifetime of choices ahead of him, unimpeded by any physical limitation.

As the stresses on our public system have mounted, so too has the pressure to allow a parallel private health care system for those who can afford it. For all intents and purposes, that parallel system already exists – with growing uninsured options available either here, or a short trip to the U.S. away.  Advocates argue the private option for those who can afford it takes pressure off the public system. In fact, this alternate threatens to insidiously erode the public system, by normalizing the notion that a lesser standard is acceptable for those without the means to pay for better.

Let’s root out and cure the ailments in the public system – attack the waste, use sensible tactics to reduce the cost of drugs, improve the service and provide adequate funding. Even our neighbours to the south would agree. Regardless of the ridiculous posturing against ‘Obamacare’, Americans who experience Canada’s system first-hand know we have something worth holding onto.

Our family already knows it. We have a healthy, happy grandson as proof.

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist of Troy Media.

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