Above photo: Tommy Douglas, Canada’s “Father of Medicare.” From Sojourners.

By Jean Swanson

My dad poked his head into my room.  “Canada is a nice country,” he said. “But watch out for Saskatchewan, they have socialized medicine.”  It was about 1959. I was an Oregon teenager studying Canada in school.

Fast forward 8 years later.  My then husband decided to go to the University of BC.  I was 9 months pregnant. One week after landing in Vancouver, BC I was in labor.  I went to the admitting door of Vancouver General Hospital. I had a fistful of $20 bills.  I told the admitting clerk I was in labour and offered the money. She said, “Put your money away dear.  We’re not allowed to talk about money in admitting.”  

Three days later I was getting ready to leave the hospital with the baby.  In those days they kept you in for 6 days when you had a baby but my doctor said I could go after 3 cause I was paying for it (I think it was $37 a day back then), as a non citizen.  The other women in the room asked why I was going and I explained it to them. They told me that they only paid $1 a day. The gears in my brain started turning. Not the thinking gears.  The gears that had been programmed. “But you can’t chose your own doctor,” I blurted out. They told me I was wrong and that they could chose their doctor and if they didn’t like the one they chose first, they could chose another one.  

Ten weeks later when I took the baby for a check-up, the doctor told me he thought there was a problem because she wasn’t gaining weight.  He put her in the hospital for a heart catheterization which determined that she had a big hole in her heart. I was in total panic. I had already had one child die so I knew it was possible.  I was the non working wife of a student with virtually no money. How would we pay for her care? While I was stressing out a nurse put a slip of paper in my hand with a phone number on it. “Just call this number and it will be ok,” she told me.  

When I got home I called the number.  It was the number for Medical Services Plan, the British Columbia health insurance provider.  I explained the situation to the woman on the other end of the line. “Don’t worry, dear,” she told me.  “I’ll cancel your Blue Cross (which we had as a student family but didn’t cover much) and get you a refund, and then put you on MSP and everything will be covered.”  

This didn’t make sense to my American brain.  “But she has a hole in her heart,” I said. “That’s a pre-existing condition.”  

“Our job is to help sick people,” said the woman on the other end of the phone.  

Months later I was telling my American brother about the good care that my daughter was getting, a pediatric cardiologist, all kinds of tests, kind attention, etc.  He said, “But you can’t chose your own doctor.”  

My daughter did well, and the hole grew closed on its own after a couple of bad bouts of pneumonia when she got really good care.  

Years later I got to meet Tommy Douglas, who was the leader in Saskatchewan who brought in medicare.  I thanked him for my daughter’s life. She is now an amazing kindergarten teacher.

My dad died before his grandaughter was born.  But I often wonder if I could use the fact that socialized medicine saved his granddaughter’s life to convince him that we don’t need to “watch out for Saskatchewan.”  In fact, if we can get our governments to bring in single payer medicare, what used to be called “socialized medicine”, we’d all be a lot better off.

Jean Swanson is a city councilor in Vancouver, BC

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