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As sick as a Mitchell

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I’m on a first name basis with the personal assistant of my Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, but that’s nothing to brag about – according to her business card she only has one name, like Madonna or Newman on Seinfeld. Farzana recognizes my name as well, probably because I have been calling her regularly for the past sixth months to find out if her office has a surgery date for me yet.

She finally came through for me this week when she informed me at last that I would be able to get in for an operation on June 11, less than a month away. It’s going to be a little dangerous, a lot painful, completely uncomfortable and more than a little disgusting for everyone around me, but I’m looking forward to it like it’s a trip to Disneyland. After living with a sinus problems for the past decade, going under the knife next month will be like going for a spin on the teacups – sure, I’ll be a little nauseous at first, but I’ll be richer for the experience.

Because of the Hospital Employees Union strike two weeks ago I might have been pushed back another couple of months – my specialist was hoping to operate last November so I’m already more than six months overdue – but another surgery date was miraculously added to his schedule at the last minute. I was lucky enough to call his office early and get on the list for that day.

Sadly, you did read that last part right – my specialist wanted to operate in November 2003 because my sinus condition was severe, I finally got a date in June 2004 because another surgery date was added out of the blue, and I was just plain lucky to call when I did.

Unfortunately, that’s how it seems to work these days. Maybe in the past the specialist would have done the work for me, putting me on a special list with all the other high priorities and booking me into the next available operating room. Now it’s entirely up to the patient to organize a non life-threatening surgery, mostly because specialists are too busy and receive too little support from the hospitals to properly handle all of their cases.

Most of my specialist’s patients will have to wait more than a year to have their Ear, Nose and Throat procedures, only because those poor, plugged-up bastards are not yet sick enough to qualify for priority treatment. Fortunately for me my condition had worsened to the point where the surgery was no longer voluntary, but urgently required.

How urgent is urgent, you ask? Put it this way – in the last six months I’ve been on antibiotics four times for sinus infections, all of which have spread into my chest resulting in bronchitis, asthma, shortness of breath and an abundance of throat clearing. It is affecting my sleep, my job and my overall health. One of my friends who is sick with a chest cold described the experience as being "as sick as a Mitchell".

Somewhere along the line my name has become a synonym for being deathly ill.

I’m not sure exactly how it all started, but I left high school with a bone chip in one of my sinuses and a badly deviated septum (the strip of cartilage separating our nostrils). The combination of the bone chip and the fact that my sinuses couldn’t drain properly resulted in a rather serious sinus infection that made it impossible to fly.

I did have surgery in Toronto seven years ago to remove the chip and straighten out the septum. But while the surgery was successful, the post-op was botched because the surgeon and hospital neglected to tell me that my nose was being held together with a suture and some gauze.

I found out about all that stuff about two weeks later (a week after I was supposed to have it removed) when my nose exploded in a Halifax video store.

After a month of antibiotics, my condition did improve for a while. The problems started again a few years later, but I blamed that on the family cat. The fact that I cleared up once again when I moved to Whistler seemed to support my theory.

About three years ago the infections returned, getting worse and worse until there were no good days. Things are growing up there out of the mucous membranes as a result of all the infections, large enough to plug up my airways and prevent proper drainage. Infection follows infection. I went to a specialist more than a year ago and stood back while the medical system spluttered in front of me, wondering how many hoops I would have to jump through before I could get the treatment I needed.

Now the last loop is in sight and, I’m ready to jump. Although it’s been a difficult time, I do feel grateful for the chance I’ve been given and for the fact that Canada has universal Medicare. This is one year I feel happy to pay my taxes.

I’ve never met her, but my specialist’s assistant must be an incredibly efficient and organized woman. As it stands my specialist already sees patients in about six different hospitals in the Lower Mainland and Sea to Sky corridor, and is constantly on the road with his briefcase full of patient files.

It’s a confusing and overwhelming job, he says, and it’s not his fault.

It doesn’t take much to get him talking about the politics within B.C.’s hospital system, and the constant battle he faces to book the operating room for his growing list of people who need surgery. Space is at such a premium lately that there’s talk of one day moving his office out of St. Paul’s Hospital, his home base of operations.

Under the circumstances I’m not surprised I had to take the bull by the horns – or in my case the sinus by the polyposis – in order to resolve my medical problems. I’m not surprised that I had to be a little bit lucky to get a surgery date.

Canada’s health care system is a crossroads. The federal government is under more and more pressure to allow private health care in this country, providing another treatment option for people who have money. The argument is that health care costs are an increasing burden on taxpayers, but according to one study our per capita health care costs are actually going down. Less people are smoking, more people are watching what they eat and drink, cars are safer, and medical staff have better technology, tests and training.

Some believe that the health care crisis is being overblown, that it’s all part of a P.R. campaign by companies that are in favour of health care privatization in Canada. At this point I’m inclined to believe that.

While service levels have declined slightly and overall costs are going up because of budget cuts, budget deficits, federal downloading on provinces, and the impact of an aging population, we’re still doing pretty well when compared to other countries.

It’s too early to say exactly where our health care systems stands, and whether it is meeting the needs of Canadians. I’ll probably have more to say on this issue after June 11.

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