I posted this piece for the first time a year ago on a previous blog that I used to co-run. Given that Landmark Report has a much wider readership, and my story is still a story that I feel needs to be told, I’ve made the decision to re-post my column as it originally appeared on Strictly Right on August 8th, 2010. In the previous year, I’m pleased to report that my walking has improved substantially, as has my medical health in general.
At this point in my life, I walk with a cane, my memory is intermittent at best, and I’m subject to weekly blood tests among a constant stream of other sorts of medical checkups. The cause? A stroke suffered at the hands of the socialized healthcare in Canadian hospitals.
Had a doctor had time to take my case seriously; or, had I been able to get basic diagnostic testing done in a timely manner; or, had the triage nurse not been on lunch break when I needed her; or, had I been prescribed the simple medication that would have prevented by body from forming blood clots; or, had I been informed of risks and told of things I could do to change what lay ahead, this may never have happened. One things for sure, public healthcare failed me at every turn…and I almost died because of it.
Exactly one year ago, on August 8th, 2009, I was admitted into Ottawa General Hospital with an ischemic stroke, caused by a cardioembolism (blood clot) in my left anterior cerebral artery. The tiny little clot that changed my life was a by-product of a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (A-Fib, for short) that I had been diagnosed with about a month prior.
To this date, doctors are still dumbfounded about how someone in their 20′s who rarely drinks and has never done drugs acquired A-Fib in the first place, but I accept that flukes happen. I was having a quiet evening with a friend when I felt my heart racing, accompanied by serious chest pains and difficulty breathing. After several hours of attempting to convince myself that nothing was wrong, I called a public health service called Telehealth Ontario (possibly one of the most useless government services in existence) to see if I had a cause for concern. The official recommendation from Telehealth was go to the hospital by ambulance.
Upon arriving to the hospital, I was brought right into the emergency room and received in my care a level of quality that I have no complaints about. After several attempts to bring my heart back to ‘sinus’ rhythm, my doctors succeeded and I was discharged with follow-up. This was where the problems started. I was given an ‘urgent’ referral to a place called the Acute Cardiac Referral Clinic at the affiliated University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
No one was able to give me an accurate estimate on how long I’d be waiting. That being said, I wasn’t too worried, because I accepted the explanation of the doctor that, “this was probably just a one-off. You’re young, you’ll be fine.” I was going to be fine, no need to worry! For my own sake, I didn’t do much Googling of the affliction that I had been diagnosed with because I knew that I’d likely find some bizarre case of someone dying from it in some African village 50 years ago. The last thing I wanted was to be one of those patients who starts off a medical consultation with “I read on the internet somewhere that…” or anything similar.
I was a little disturbed that a heart issue with no identifiable randomly appeared, but I wasn’t worried. However, only four days later, I noticed the same symptoms as I was on my way to work. By the time I got to my office on Parliament Hill, I sunk into a couch, clutched my chest and called security to bring down an oxygen tank. I ended up having an ambulance bring me to the hospital yet again, less than a week after my most recent visit.
Once again, I received reasonable care according to my imminent needs, but was given little confidence that I’d be looked after in the long-term. Over a five-week period, I ended up in the emergency room four times with the same symptoms, each time being told that it was either a ‘fluke’ or ‘coincidence.’ One doctor’s brilliant advice was that it was ‘weird.’ Despite this issue only getting worse, my urgent referral to the Acute Cardiac Referral Clinic wasn’t available any quicker. I was able to get in during the first week of August. I wasn’t permitted to see a cardiologist, merely a technician who wasn’t permitted to tell me anything until a cardiologist had a chance to look at the tests “whenever he gets to it.”
Amusingly, on the last of these four visits, the doctor said to me, “If you were older we’d be worried about you having a stroke. But that’s not going to happen.” Less than a week later, I proved him wrong.
This part is truly a comedy of errors. Feeling my heart condition start acting up, I decided that I would go to the hospital just to make sure. It was the sunny afternoon of Saturday August 8th. Upon arrival to the Ottawa General Hospital (I should have been requesting frequent flier miles,) I proceeded to the emergency room and went to the reception desk. The rather miserable looking woman asked, “Are you here to see a doctor or a patient?” I was feeling a little dizzy at this point, and I didn’t notice that I had been dragging my right leg. I told her that I wanted to see a doctor, and she informed me that I needed to see a triage nurse first. The catch? The triage nurse was on lunch and wouldn’t be back for another 45-50 minutes. The clot had already made its way to my brain by this time. Every passing minute was leading to less and less strength on my right side. Unfortunately, my brain was too messed up to know that anything was happening.
The triage nurse arrived shortly before 2:00pm and motioned me in. By this point, I was barely able to use my right arm and was dragging my right leg from the waiting area to her chair. Every other time I had been sitting there, they had done routine questions that would rule out whether or not I was having a stroke. She didn’t ask those this time, I must have been fine then! I was then downgraded from emergent to the hospital’s clinic, inappropriately called the Urgent Care unit. When I got there and an electrocardiogram (ECG) was done, I was quickly brought into the emergency room, and from there I was quickly brought into the emergency room and treated for a stroke. To put things into perspective, with ischemic strokes there is a 4.5-hour window in which a miracle drug can be administered to break up the clot. I received this with 13 minutes to spare.
One mistake at one hospital is unfortunate. Two mistakes at two hospitals is a little fishy. However, a series of screw-ups and neglect that leads to a preventable tragedy raises enough cause to question the efficiency of the system itself. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. This saga through the public healthcare system changed my life forever. I thank God it didn’t take my life away altogether.