Deb McKee Kelly

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I walked out of the hospital after finishing the 13th of 30 radiation treatments the other night, and the sun was setting dark pink over Lake Ontario. After two years in Canada, I’ve become accustomed to the beautiful water views – I’ve begun to take them for granted, barely noticing what was a jaw-dropping vista for me not that long ago.

What I have not become accustomed to is a sense of awe over my health coverage.

In Canada, even though I am not a citizen, but rather a Permanent Resident, my cancer care is paid for by my fellow taxpayers. They’ve – we’ve, collectively – paid for my surgery, months of chemotherapy, and now, my radiation. I mentally send them my love and thanks every day for this amazing benefit. I walk in, see my doctor, take my treatments, and I never see a bill. Canadians grumble about the fact that they sometimes have to pay for parking while at the hospital. I’ll take it.

Having had almost the exact same cancer 16 years ago, and having experienced excellent treatment in the U.S., I feel uniquely positioned to say that the two medical systems both have saved my life, with compassion and expediency. I see very few differences in the way medical facilities function here or in the States.

I cannot say the same for the social and cultural systems.

Sixteen years ago, I could not thank my fellow taxpayers in the U.S. for their contribution to my care. They had nothing to do with it. I was alone, having been diagnosed while a law student, and only insured by very basic student coverage. I know how much these treatments cost, because I watched the bills pile up. I worried every day about what bill might show up next and add to the knot in my stomach. My care was so expensive that I ended up declaring bankruptcy a few years later – something for which I carried great shame and sadness, and for which I was treated differently in the financial realm for the next 10 years. My fellow U.S. taxpayers did contribute to the writing off of my debt (my husband calls it back-door socialism), but it felt different. It felt shameful. I told no one.

Here in Canada I don’t feel ashamed, but I’m often struck with gratitude and wonder.

For what reason should other Canadian citizens pay for my care? Because I’m a good, deserving person? No. I’m not any better or worse than any other person, and even if I were, the hospital wouldn’t do a survey to make that determination before giving me my treatments.

What does Canada owe me, a middle-aged person who has been here for only two years? I’ve done nothing for Canada, aside from paying my taxes, following the rules, not causing any trouble. But I wouldn’t even have to do that. Even if I never worked, even if I were completely useless and unproductive as a cog in the capitalist system (yes, friends, it’s a capitalist, free-market system here, with elements of socialism mixed in, just like the U.S.!), my fellow taxpayers would take care of me.

Is it because it is financially better in the long run for the country to pay for the care of its citizens (and permanent residents)? In some cases, I think so. Preventative care is much cheaper than the cost of treating some serious illnesses. But not in all cases. It can’t be cheaper to put me on a year’s worth of expensive medications and treatments than it would be to let me die. So, it’s not really about the bottom line.

I have spent this past year fighting off a sense of guilt, because everyone here has to pay extra in taxes to take care of me. It occurred to me, finally, that the reason I felt guilty was because I hold the deep ingrained belief that my wellness is not anyone else’s problem — the belief that I am not worth their care, and that I must earn their willingness to share the cost with me. And then I realized that Canadians are not brought up that way. They hold the deep ingrained belief that their wellness is tied up with the wellness of their fellow citizens, that wellness is a human right, and that everyone is worth it.

I walked out of the hospital on that bitterly cold February night and thought of the warmth I would go home to, and that’s when I started thinking about the similarities between being ill and being homeless, in terms of what the government offers.

When you are ill, you need help. When you are sick, you can’t always call on all your regular resources to change your situation. You rely on others. I would say it’s the same for being homeless, or poor, or dealing with a myriad of family challenges.

A big difference between being ill and being homeless is the way other people look at you. We usually don’t blame people for being sick, or elderly, or very young and helpless, so we are willing to help them; but we almost always blame the poor or homeless for being in their situations. The U.S. and Canada both provide some taxpayer support for their homeless populations, but only Canada provides health coverage for all of its people. In the U.S., even though we don’t blame people for being sick, often the outcome feels as bad as being blamed.

Why do we blame our fellow humans? Whether they are homeless, or ill, or in some way needing help? Why do we put conditions on our sharing? Why do we decide who is worthy of resources and who isn’t?

And why do we lie and tell our children that we should love everyone equally, and then we turn around and vote for someone who puts a different dollar figure on every human being? We humans are fantastic hypocrites.

I spend far too much time on social media, and while I try (now more than ever) to stay out of political fights on a certain platform (including the letters “F” and “B”), I have seen several nasty posts recently regarding the “wrongness” of socialism or social programs.

(Because social programs are too expensive! Because they teach people that you can get something for nothing! Because people take advantage! Look at me! No one helped ME and I am successful!) When the social program on trial is health coverage, the issue is the expense. When the social program on trial is welfare of some sort, the conversation turns to fraud and misuse.

Which makes me start to wonder why so many humans believe the worst about their fellow humans, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary?

Maybe the people who most distrust others do so because they themselves would take advantage if they thought they wouldn’t be caught. I always find it ironic that some of the most stringent anti-socialists often brag (quietly) about cheating on their taxes, downloading pirated movies, and lying to get out of fundraisers. Hmm.

It has struck me as the primary difference between Canada and the U.S.: the sense that my well-being is tied up with your well-being, and that every single person deserves care and dignity.

I hope — but I don’t believe — that good will prevail in the long run. I know my fellow Americans are capable of love and compassion; almost every one I know IS compassionate and loving. But somehow we are trained that the others out there are going to get something they don’t deserve. I hope Canada continues to follow a culture of goodwill toward its people. I wish other countries would progress in the same direction.

Deb McKee Kelly, originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, lives in Kingston, Ontario where she co-owns a mushroom growing business with her husband, Darin. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and a graduate of Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis.

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