The disease of bias in the Canadian Health Care System

The disease of bias in the Canadian Health Care System

I had a bad week with the Canadian Health Care System. Even though it’s nice to know that we have it, I’d like to share some of the sad reality of this system and that there are a lot of times when I have needed it and it failed.

A massive stomach cramp came out of nowhere last week and struck me down. Was it the shitty Chinese takeout I ate last night?

Man Sitting On Bed And Feeling Unwell
Stomach cramp from hell

Favourite go-to scapegoat for tummy problems: blame whatever I didn’t cook myself. It was all vegetarian so I couldn’t blame uncooked meat for this pain.  Damn!

I took some digestive over the counter aids like Tums and Gravol. I played the waiting game until the pain subsided. It didn’t.  

I waited a few days to make sure it wasn’t just in my head. Took stronger antacids and doubled up dosages. No effect.

My symptoms included a persistent stomach pain in the upper abdomen, fatigue, chest tightness, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, inability to sleep due to the pain and what felt like acid reflux. The first day it hit me, I slept for 18 hours and ate hardly 300 calories worth in 2 days.

I caved and called Health Link 811. This is a phone number provided by Alberta Health Services which connects patients to a real nurse. He or she will listen to your symptoms and tell you whether to just continue treating with some OTC medicine or go see a doctor.

My nurse told me I had to go to my closest Urgent Care and get myself looked at ASAP.

I left work reluctantly because I felt she was a bit alarmed for nothing. I thought, “here we go, time to sit around the waiting room for 2-3 hours before I even get in to see a doctor.” But I figured since the nurse was quite insistent I head over there, that it was serious enough that I’d be seen quickly.

A typical hospital waiting room

I’m a healthy 30-something but in recent months I’ve begun to notice my health is starting to decline slightly. It’s not like in my 20’s where I could fix any health issue by taking a nap! Ok, I exaggerate but it literally didn’t take long for anything to pass in a day or so.

These days if I spend one night on a crappy mattress, I end up with back pain that lasts for days. I can’t just walk it off anymore. Ugh!

After two hours in the waiting room, I was called in to wait around some more to see the actual doctor. Two nurses talked to me about my symptoms and checked my vitals. All good.

Then the doctor came in, felt my abdomen and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She gave me a strong antacid with lidocaine in it (the stuff that numbs the crap out of you). The doctor assured me that if I felt better that all I needed was a stronger antacid.

Expectation: the doctor will listen to my concerns and address them

After a good half hour she checked on me and noticed that I looked “normal”. My face colouring was fine. I wasn’t wailing in pain like some other drama queens in the waiting room. There were at least 4 that I counted that day that were crying out from time to time and cursing periodically when their name wasn’t called.

This was my health care provider’s initial sarcastic comment: “You look pretty comfy!”

I was dumbstruck, “Excuse me?”

Doctor: “Well it seems like that antacid did the trick.”

Me: “Actually, it didn’t do anything except numb my tongue.”

Doctor: “So did it reduce your pain?”

Me: “No, it just covered it up. The pain is still there.”

Doctor: “I’m going to write you a prescription for a stronger antacid.”

Me: “I don’t think the antacid you gave me even worked.”

Doctor: “No, it’s fine, it REDUCED the pain.”

Me: “It NUMBED me, but the pain is still there.”

Doctor: “I think what you have is acid reflux and if that’s not it, you might want to talk to your family doctor about ordering a test to check for an ulcer.”

The doctor hands me the prescription and wishes me well. She assures me that I can come back anytime if the pain worsens in the next few days.

Reality: The doctor needs the bed for a “real” patient…so GTFO!


Well, I’m completely un-reassured at this point that seeing a doctor in Urgent Care is even worth the hassle! The doctor didn’t even listen to anything I was saying. But she did offer another culprit: an ulcer.

I left the Urgent Care after 4 hours altogether. I spoke to a co-worker after I got back to the office about what happened and how pissed off I was about my experience. Jaded, she attests, “Unless you are a senior or a child, everyone in between gets the most mediocre health care because you are likely to survive anything.”

Unfortunately, it turns out doctors are human, and therefore, biased to some level.

Bias in the health care system can be based on age, gender, race, weight, or a myriad of other stereotypes. Just because one is a doctor doesn’t make them immune from being prejudiced.

In fact, it’s alarming how many people are sent away from the hospital due to mistakes made in the diagnosis due to bias.

Is it just assumed that “healthy adults” must be faking our symptoms, or exaggerating the severity of them, because we are “healthy”?

Due to my family’s medical history with cardiovascular illnesses, I’m a good candidate to get heart disease. The same disease that killed Carrie Fisher recently. Being a woman, I know it won’t be easily caught and is typically under-diagnosed for my gender.

I’m 35 and I’m already on high blood pressure medication even after I was a vegetarian for 8 years to prevent getting it.

Speaking of age bias, a doctor on a separate occasion chuckled when he saw that I was on Ramipril. “But you’re so YOUNG and HEALTHY!” Uhm…being on a medication for a precursor to heart disease does not imply health, doc!

Getting back to my story, after taking this stronger antacid for a couple days and still feeling little to no effect from it, I went to a walk-in clinic for more answers.

Normally, I’ll call the clinic in advance to find out the wait time and then I’ll go. This time there was no one in line so I bolted from work and was able to see a doctor within half an hour. Score!

The doctor I saw there was much more sympathetic and ordered me a panel of blood tests. The panel also included an H. pylori breath test, which apparently is the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

H. pylori bacterium

The “C” word is always scary when mentioned. This doctor is at least taking this a bit more seriously. Unfortunately, she warns me the test takes a month to book. Sure enough, when I went to book the H. pylori test, the first opening was a month away with Calgary Lab Services.

So here I am, stuck taking an antacid that hasn’t cured me for at least another month until I get answers on that one test. At least my appetite is back and I can sleep somewhat better.

You have to be your own health care advocate.

The system is stacked against you if you are considered “healthy” compared to people who are bleeding out, suffering from chronic illnesses, or literally on the verge of death.

In my 20’s I tried a lot of diets and could never keep the weight off. I thought something was wrong with me. I went to see a doctor about a decade ago that he didn’t want to order me “unnecessary” blood tests because he didn’t want his clinic audited. But he was more than happy to prescribe me a weight loss drug that caused involuntary diarrhea and dehydration as potential side effects. Naturally, I declined.

For a second opinion, I met another doctor who barely knew me for 5 minutes and told me I was probably pre-diabetic because I had trouble losing weight. I cried in the car on the way home because I couldn’t get it out of my head that I might have diabetes! It turned out I didn’t have diabetes.

I suspect now the doctor either had a weight or age bias, or was just an asshole with no bedside manner.

Universal health care has a lot of hoops you have to jump through. My American friends think of the Canadian health care system as something to be admired. The reality is that it’s not as perfect as you think.

Sure, the health care system is great if you like waiting around weeks or several months for answers on the government’s dime. On the other hand, private health care is available in Alberta. Trust me, after my experience, it’s very tempting to consider forking over $4000 a year just to get access to doctors on a moment’s notice.

Money, money, money, MONEYYYYYY!

But don’t worry guys, that hefty price tag is reduced to about $3000 if you renew with the clinic for the next year! These clinics bank on the fact that a lot of services are covered by your private health insurance through work so you’ll be reimbursed for many services, if not all of them.

But if you are a business owner or contractor, well…cough it up! You must be rich, right?

Your health is the most valuable asset you own.

It’s not your house, your car, or anything material. What I’ve learned is that I have to fight to receive the care I want.

For my younger adult readers, make sure that you never take any answer at face value from a doctor especially if your gut tells you something is off. Always ask more questions and never accept a mediocre answer. Be persistent.

Don’t forget, it’s our taxpayer dollars that are funding the big salaries of our doctors. YOU ARE THE BOSS! So if you think your doctor is giving you a pat on the head and rushing you out the door with a half-ass medical opinion, be aware you might need a second or third one to feel satisfied.

Be your own superhero and hold your health care providers accountable. Your life is worth saving even if you’re the only one doing it.

I am my own superhero!

Secret to success: take a 15-minute break

Secret to success: take a 15-minute break

When I was in grade 11, I remember my high school biology teacher was this militaristic school marm-type woman who was intimidating as all hell.  I’m sure you have experienced at least one teacher in your life who basically struck the fear of God in your soul if you were even 2 minutes late to class.  Her death glare was legendary. For the sake of anonymity, I’m going to call this force of nature who shaped me permanently Mrs. Smith (also because I legit forgot her name!)

The hallmarks of a typical school marm: Strict, scary, death glare…check!

Mrs. Smith was actually away for the first half of the school year in 1997 for a medical leave. Instead,  a substitute teacher taught my bio class who was super nice, and unfortunately, bullied hard by the students. I always loved Mrs. Burns (fake name).  She was jovial, smiled a lot, joked with the students, and laughed at her own clumsiness. Mrs. Burns was joined by a teaching aide who was just in university finishing up her teaching degree.  I felt bad for Mrs. Kay because she was very mild-mannered and bullied even more incessantly than Mrs. Burns.  Mrs. Kay seemed to always be on the verge of tears as she could never get the class to quiet down or cooperate.  She spoke so softly, we could hardly hear her over the din of raucous classmates who loved the sounds of their own voices. Due to her inability to rally the herd, the students shamelessly ignored Mrs. Kay’s instructions and Mrs. Burns would have to cast her own version of a disappointed stare, which was barely effective.  This toxic situation lasted about 5 months until Mrs. Smith returned to school and worked to shut that shit down.

Due to the easy-going nature of the class during the first half of the year, the students were barely ready for Mrs. Smith’s arrival.

She showed up after the Christmas break and we had no idea that she was actually our real teacher. Mrs. Smith introduced herself and was very open about having been on medical leave. She was very direct about her expectations. She didn’t tolerate students who spoke out of turn and would kick them out of class for disruption.  She wouldn’t let them back in until they apologized and behaved well. Otherwise, the disciplinary action was repeated. Mrs. Smith used shock value to shut us up by slamming a ruler against her desk to create an ear-piercing pop that would startle everyone into silence followed by an icy stare down.  She wasn’t afraid of anything, least of all a bunch of sniveling teenagers.

Every week there would be a quiz on all the stuff we learned in class. If we passed each quiz, we automatically earned 10% of our overall mark. If we failed to study our texts or do our assignments, we’d lose the 10%. It was the easiest 10% I ever earned!  Or so I thought…

That 10% though came at a cost. It meant I actually had to read and re-read all my notes in class. I also learned to re-write all my notes, as they looked like illegible scrawl coming out of class. She taught us study tactics like making up our own quiz questions as we read chapters to retain the information better. She taught us to highlight specific sentences and create flash cards out of glossary words. No one had taught me how to study before Mrs. Smith came along. I was grateful in later years for her advice.

However, there was a chink to her plan. Mrs. Smith realized quickly that students were getting burnt out because many were not passing those weekly tests. I was always very studious so I had no issue with it. One thing she mentioned to us later, that stuck with me all through University years and eventually now, she said take study breaks every hour for 15 minutes. Shut your brain off completely by watching tv, going for a walk, making a snack, or taking a power nap.

I thought to myself “what a waste of time!  I can’t afford to take 15 minute breaks every hour!”

I have a total of 4 hours of studying time after school is done and if I take 15 minute breaks it means I shorten my studying time to 3 hours!  That’s completely nuts!  The nerdy kids like myself all bitched and moaned that the old bat was off her rocker.

Boy, was I proven wrong.

The 15 minute breaks helped me retain more information when it came to memory recall during quiz time. I performed better on tests. In fact, I became more efficient at studying because I had a shorter time to absorb the same amount of information. I used the break trick throughout University. When my friends were exhausted from their studies, I had 2 part-time jobs, a sorority officer position which was like having third part-time job, and full-time studies with my Bachelor’s degree!  Yet I was never as exhausted and burnt out. Sure, I was stressed by deadlines and exams like everyone else and I maintained a respectable GPA of 3.34/4.0.

I wasn’t a straight-A student, and didn’t need to be. Perfectionism is not really my strong suit and even though I try I have always failed at it.

But striving for excellence means I’m hella above average so I’ll take that anyway!

Fast-forward ahead to 20 years later. I build in a 15 minute coffee break every 4 hours during my workday. Every hour or two I’ll get up and walk to the kitchen and do a round through my office which gives me a 5 minute repose. The breaks help me recharge and quiet my brain slightly so that I can focus on the task at hand. It make me more efficient as a worker but also friendlier to my colleagues as I am less wound up.

Gotta de-stress at least once a day by the water cooler to discuss the weather, the road conditions, or the latest Trump tweet!

There are still times I find myself having to disengage from people. I tell friends I’m busy so I can sit on the couch and Netflix all night. I’m ok with that. But last year in an effort to save money, I didn’t go on a proper vacation for almost 12 months. That lead to me feeling drained and empty, even though I was still filling my life with activities that I enjoyed. I lost focus. Those activities felt like work and because less fun over time.

My greatest passion in life is to travel abroad. If I take a 3-4 day mini-break, it’s simply not enough time for my brain to shut off. I’m bombarded by thoughts of everything I need to do when I get back. In fact, there are times I can’t even sleep because my brain will not shut off.  Rather than feeling recharged, I come back irritated and exhausted from my mini-break.

The truth is I feel ripped off when I don’t take a proper vacation.

The end of 2016, I went away to Vancouver for 6 days. I got to meet up with a good friend who moved out there, did some sightseeing, ate too much food, and slept in every day. In addition to this, I still had an extra 3 days off because of the New Year’s holiday. This extra long break helped me feel more refreshed than if I had just taken a couple days off for the statutory holiday.

The moral of this story is that if you are the type of over-achiever who isn’t taking proper breaks in your life, you will wear yourself thin. People will notice your irritability and anxiety and will not want to spend time with you for very long. You need to do yourself and the world a favour by disconnecting solidly every once in a while. Does that mean being cooped up inside your room for 24 hours, or going on a hike where you don’t have a cell signal, or does that mean a 2 week vacation?

After years of studying myself, I’ve learned the magic number of days off is 10 days for me.

Any longer than that and I start to get irritated that I’m not back to my life because I’m ready to take on the world! Any shorter than that and it’s like I wasn’t even on a break.

What’s constitutes a brain break for you?  I’d love to know!  Please comment below and tell me.