As my two friends propped me up and tried to identify our location for the 911 dispatcher, I awaited my first real-life encounter with the mostly government-funded Canadian health-care system. As a health-care writer, I talk with people all the time about their experiences navigating the system, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
Writing about health care is different from writing about the arts, say, or sports, in one crucial way: When you write about health care, you’re often left feeling profoundly grateful that you didn’t have to experience firsthand the event that you’re describing. But now my luck had turned, and I was about to get up close and personal with emergency care, Canadian style.
The ambulance arrived within 15 minutes, and I had a bumpy but uneventful ride to the hospital, a regional trauma center at one of the local universities. On arrival, we showed them my passport and American insurance card. Because I was a trauma patient, I was wheeled right in, just as would happen in a U.S. hospital. A nurse removed my clothes, cutting off my shirt since I couldn’t move my arm. Another nurse drew blood.
At the request of a very young-looking resident, I moved various body parts on command and answered questions about what hurt. The resident, who was my main contact throughout the visit, also looked over my injuries, including checking my ears and eyes. She was friendly and kind, and kept up a running commentary in mostly fluent English explaining what she and others were doing. (One of my friends, a French-speaking Montreal resident, stayed with me and interpreted when the medical staff’s questions or my answers were complicated.)
One of the most striking things about the exam was how little high-technology equipment they employed. Until I had X-rays made of my hand, hip, shoulder and knee, a blood-pressure cuff was the most advanced equipment I encountered.
The use of emergency department technology varies, of course, in Canada and elsewhere. Still, clinicians at a trauma center in the United States treating someone with injuries similar to mine would probably wheel a portable ultrasound machine to the bedside in the trauma bay to scan for internal injuries, says Sandra Schneider, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. They would also probably do CT scans, perhaps of my neck, pelvis and back, to make sure there were no bone breaks that didn’t show up on the X-rays. Some of the tests might not be necessary, but “a lot of what [U.S. emergency physicians] do is because we are very frightened of getting sued, because we get sued so often,” says Schneider.