The Canadian healthcare system has been my extended family since I was born. I was born with Spina Bifida in the early 1950’s and it has been there to support me through years even to this day. So asking how healthcare affected decisions in my life is like asking me how my parents affected my life… it’s a long, involved, and murky story.
I can’t really remember my toddler years, but even then I had numerous encounters with doctors, nurses, and other medical practitioners. The first real glimmers memory are of learning how to walk on braces and crutches at Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. During my hospital stays, I rarely saw my family, as our home was a great distance away. Even at that early age, I quickly learned that my ‘adoptive caregivers’ were potential ‘friends’… it was this understanding that launched my awareness of the health care system’s influence.
The hospital is where I learned that it didn’t really matter a caregiver’ s age, nationality, or position, as long as you gave them a quick grin and understood they were often busy, they would always be back with time for you. That was also when I learned that if I ate all of my broccoli, there was a picture of Peter Rabbit at the bottom of the dish; that the Italian person who cleaned my room had children my age and when asked would regale me with stories of the mischief they got into; and that that x-ray technician with the dark skin was from a fascinating far away island called Jamaica.
During my elementary school years, I underwent various corrective surgeries. The issue at that time was whether or not to undergo the procedures necessary to walk without braces and crutches. At that time, abandoning boots for shoes similar to my sister’s held a definite appeal and swayed my agreement much more than what might have been best for me in the longer term. Was the result totally my decision or was it collective judgment of the system, my parents, and me? I’m not sure I’ll ever know.
But again, my hospital visits resulted with life experiences and influences beyond the surgeries. That is when I learned how to make a bed with hospital corners (perhaps a ploy to get me to make my own bed or more likely to keep me ‘busy’). It is where I got to play and help feed the babies in the nursery, and when a bout with septicemia meant I was placed in a single room with a television set. (Remember that TV sets on wards were a rarity in those days even on children’s wards.) One of my most vivid memories was that room crowded with nurses and interns on duty the night that the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan… and yes, I did get to stay up late!
Corrective surgery went on into my teenage years. Severe scoliosis and fear of pressure sores meant that I was on a Stryker frame for six months. The consequence of this hiatus and my changing body structure was relinquishing my braces and crutches for a manual wheelchair. Preference of the wheelchair over the hard work and potential failure to walk again was mostly my decision… the chair so much easier and faster for getting from point A to point B and with four siblings speed was an unwritten necessity. I am fairly certain that if I had insisted on continuing the use of braces and crutches, I would have had the support of my parents and the health care system to do so. Again though, that and subsequent hospitals stays resulted in life experiences and influences I would have never encountered at home. There was the lady in the bed next to me in an oxygen tent who urged me to promise her that I would never smoke (I kept that promise), the Toronto Maple Leaf player down the hall who told me I was the most beautiful person he had ever met (that one definitely left an impression), and that other patient’s visitors who told me that the reason I was born this way was because my parents had sinned.
Over my working career, my encounters with the healthcare system were few other than plastic surgeries for pressure sores. Although, even during this time health care still exerted its influence on my decision-making. Do I work fewer hours to avoid pressure sores or do I invest big money in a revolutionary new seating system? Do I purchase that new titanium wheelchair or face deterioration of my arm muscles? Do I accept a relocation to the United States with my employer and my workmates? (The healthcare system certainly influenced that decision. Although my employer would have provided private healthcare support, they wouldn’t guarantee my job for any length of time. With my medical history, I just couldn’t take the chance of losing the support of the health care system!)
Approaching my senior years has resulted in renewed encounters with the healthcare system: surgeries for a malformation, cancer, and an encounter with Hashimoto’s encephalitis. The health care system continues to exert its influence in my life decisions. At one point, I was living in a lovely sea-side community in British Columbia, when my primary care physician suggested that I needed to move within the coverage area of an emergency hospital. Who would have thought that access to ambulances, the location of my home, and the structure of the Provincial Health Authorities could make such a big difference? But there it was… either move my home into the coverage area of emergency hospital coverage or face the communication and jurisdictional delays between health care authorities, doctors, and hospitals. Needless to say the decision to move was a no-brainer!
What’s ahead? Who knows! Looking back down the path of past years, I think you’d have to agree that the health care system not only directly affected key decisions in my life but also exposed me to experiences influencing life choices well beyond its designated sphere. It is comforting to know that it is still here for me and with any luck we will continue our relationship into the future.