It was the early 1980s when I finally visited Canada for the first time. I had been out of college for a couple of years and was on my second job. My first job paid fifteen cents an hour more than minimum wage, but now I was with a huge pharmaceutical company earning union wages. I even had a full week of paid of vacation. In the last week of June, I headed for Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula, along the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this was to be the last trip with my entire family of origination. My sisters were already involved with the men who would become their husbands a few years later. In fact, my eldest sister’s boyfriend was a Canadian; we planned to spend a few days with his family in Montréal on the way home.
The trip took place in my parents’ motor home, a monstrosity that slept eight and got about nine miles to a gallon of petrol. My father was the only one of us who had the guts to pilot that beast down the freeway.
We walked through the historic district of Québec City and laughed at the horrible French overdubbing of “Charlie’s Angels” reruns on the grainy images we were able to pull in with the antenna on the portable TV in the motor home. After having studied French in junior high, high school and college, I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally speak the language “for real.” It wasn’t long before I had my chance. When we visited a large shopping mall, I decided to pretend to be a native and began speaking animatedly to my mother in French. Salespeople would come over and try to help us in rapid-fire French, assuming that we spoke the language fluently. My mother would roll her eyes at my antics.
When we pulled into the campground in a provincial park in a rural part of Québec, I walked into the office with my father to register and pay. Dad asked the man behind the counter whether he spoke English. “Non,” he replied matter-of-factly, crossing his arms to imply “and what are you gonna do about it?” At this point, Dad pointed to me as if to say “it’s all yours!”
This was my moment! “Nous voulons rester ici ce soir,” I began, stating the obvious — that we planned to stay overnight. He then asked whether we had any animals with us. Yes, I replied, our two cats. My sisters had insisted on taking Schwantzy and Baby Baldrick with us. (Weird names, I know. Don’t ask.) We paid the space rent and the guy told us that we had to leave the cats in the park’s kennel. He called for someone in the back and a young boy, probably no more than seven or eight years old, came out to the motor home and grabbed our large cats, one in each arm, bearing them away to unseen cages. You could tell he was an old pro at this.
After pulling into our space, we took off exploring and quickly found the park’s tennis courts. We played until we were exhausted and the sun was about to set, then returned to the motor home to prepare dinner. Next morning, after breakfast we drove down to the office to retrieve the cats. Out came the boy again, bearing a cat in each arm. Baby Baldrick was having none of it, squirming until he managed to elude the boy’s grip, jump out of his arms and take off in the general direction of the Arctic Circle. The poor kid ran after the cat, calling “minna, minna, minna!” The rest of us quickly joined the search, calling out “puss, puss, puss!”
But Baby B was gone, and after about half an hour we hit the road without him. We often thought of him after that, hoping he was enjoying life as a chat in the Québecois wildnerness, making lots of Canadian kittens.
Our fateful trip to Québec occurred more than thirty years ago, but it all came back to me yesterday as I sat by myself in an exam room, waiting for the doctor to appear. The schedulers had made my appointment with the assumption that it would take 45 minutes for me to complete my new patient paperwork. (Have you ever had hepatitis, tuberculosis or cancer? Are you in fear of violence from your spouse? Have you ever had sex with homosexual men?) I was done in about 20 minutes, but we had been there close to an hour before the nurse called my name to come on back. In the meantime, the waiting room had filled up. Perhaps this was the Friday crowd, eager to be treated before the weekend.
One patient was told that she did not have an appointment even though she vehemently insisted that she had made one. There was an opening at 1:45, the clerk told her, and she’d gladly put her down for that slot if she didn’t mind waiting 4¾ hours. Or she could just go home and come back in the afternoon. The poor woman began pitching a fit that she had taken two buses to get over here from Yuba City in time for her appointment and that she was going to be seen! Her blood sugar, she announced loudly, was 600 and her meter warned her to “seek medical assistance.”
I was receiving my first lesson in Managed Care 101. When we visited Montréal after we lost Baby Baldrick, I couldn’t help noticing that every neighborhood had a surfeit of little medical clinics, seemingly one every few blocks. The family of my sister’s boyfriend explained that Canada has universal health care and that the walk-in clinics were primary points of contact. From there, doctors would refer patients out to specialists, as needed. The problem, they told me, is that there is a long waiting list for surgeries and other expensive procedures. Those who could afford to pay for their care, they admitted, often got around this gridlock by traveling to the United States or other countries to have needed surgery promptly. I was warned not to harbor any grand illusions; that although health care is free in Canada, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get what you need this year or next year or maybe ever. And what Canadians save in health care premiums, I was told, they make up for by paying high taxes.
Now that we’d been at the clinic for an hour, the nurse weighed me, took my temperature and blood pressure and entered my medical history and prescriptions into the computer. The doctor would be with me soon, he assured me, as he walked out.
And so I sat in the examination room and waited. And waited. And waited. I pulled out my phone and checked my email. Played my turns in Words with Friends. Read the news online. Finally, I began texting my wife, who was sitting patiently out in the waiting room. Our exchange went something like this:
Me: Still waiting for dr.
<10 minutes later>
Her: Still waiting?
Her: Gotta love managed health care.
Me: Ha, yep. Welcome to Canada.
Her: At least you speak French if we need it.
Me: Ah, oui, madame.
Her: Gotta find the bright side.
Me: For sure.
<15 minutes later>
Me: Still waiting. Or should I say encore je lui attend?
Finally, the doctor appeared, about 45 minutes after I had been called back, an hour and three-quarters after we arrived at the clinic. Before we were done, he confessed that he had already taken three times as long with me as he was supposed to and that his superiors were pressuring him to see ever more patients and spend less and less time with each.
“That’s terrible,” I told him.
“It’s the way it is,” he responded, clearly resigned to the situation.
I may have to write the Ministry of Health or maybe even Prime Minister Harper about this.
Here in northern California, there is an increasingly vocal faction that seeks to break off from southern California to form the State of Jefferson. But I know the truth.
When I wasn’t looking, we joined the Dominion of Canada.