Josh Freed: I fell off my bike and into the reality of U.S. health care

It’s the second time I’ve flown over the handlebars of a bike, but I was thankful for the insta-super-treatment in the U.S. compared with the long wait in a Montreal hospital the first time.

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I’ve recently had a chance to compare U.S. hospitals with Canadian ones, though I wish I’d skipped the experience.

It happened during a biking vacation in Burlington, Vt., where I rented an e-bike for the day. It started pouring during the ride, so my wife wisely headed back while I waited out the rain, then pushed on.

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I got slightly lost and it became late, so returning I sped up slightly, then somewhere near Burlington I recall crossing a railway track, then perhaps a curve, or maybe a …

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Well, I’d like to tell you more, but I can’t remember.

All I recall is suddenly being airborne, seemingly slowly, then flying over my handlebars and curling into a ball while thinking: “Uh-oh, not again!” (more on that later) as I skidded toward the hard asphalt pavement.

Next I remember I was returning to consciousness, dizzy, propped against a tree, my helmet crushed beside me. On opening my eyes I saw a woman holding a phone in my face — my phone — which I now realize she was cleverly opening, using (my) face recognition.

She asked my wife’s name, then searched my phone and exclaimed: “Don’t worry! An ambulance is already on the way,” which obviously made me worry.

Minutes later, the ambulance arrived, so I must have been out cold a while. Four paramedics jumped out, carefully rolled me onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, where a doctor asked questions like: Did I know where I was and why I was there?

Uh … not really, I said.

Was I with someone, perhaps my wife?

Probably, I said, I’m not sure.

As I lay in the now-racing ambulance, I gradually pieced together where I was, who I was with — and who I was. Next I knew I was being stretchered into a U.S. hospital where the differences between our systems emerged.

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Throngs of doctors and nurses were instantly examining me, treating my numerous skin abrasions, hooking up machinery and taking my vitals. Two orthopedists were also examining me, asking if I could feel various parts of my body.

As a resident doctor prepared to stitch my face, others asked memory questions and my medical history, while another naturally requested all my billing information.

I was in the emergency ward several hours where my wife soon found me. I was treated by more than 20 people, from doctors and suturers to teams wheeling me off for CT scans and X-rays of my head and spine.

Four hours and three face stitches later, I was patched up and allowed to leave hospital. But I looked as bruised and battered as a run-over peach and had a sore neck, slight headache and brain fog that lasted a week.

Still, I feel incredibly lucky it wasn’t worse and thankful for the insta-super-treatment.

I’d had a somewhat similar experience in Montreal more than a decade ago when I biked over a huge pothole on Mount Royal’s dirt road and flew over the handlebars. I regained consciousness quickly to see a throng of people staring down at me, one saying: “Isn’t that the guy from the Gazette?”

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An ambulance arrived then, too, after half an hour, and took me to a nearby major hospital. But I spent several hours in the waiting room, my head streaming blood, waiting for others who’d been triaged ahead of me.

As happens, I was performing in a Centaur show that night for 450 people and was sure we’d have to cancel. But at 5 p.m. a doctor friend helped out and called colleagues at another hospital.

Within minutes we were in a cab, racing to the other hospital where I got quick, VIP-ish, U.S.-style treatment. So I stepped onto the Centaur stage only half an hour late, my head stitched and wrapped in blood-seeped gauze.

Otherwise, I might have waited overnight.

What other national health differences did I notice? The U.S. hospital bill just arrived: a $10,127.77 invoice, itemizing each bruise and abrasion treated. They also charged $1,150 for the 4.5-mile ambulance ride and another $500 for a neck brace I’d worn briefly in hospital and been told I now owned.

Yet I’d been taken to an inexpensive Vermont university hospital. Doctors tell me had it been Florida, the bills would have been three times higher.

Luckily, my film union’s insurance should cover it, but many Americans don’t have insurance — and couldn’t afford my treatment.

Meanwhile, Quebec hospitals are busy looking after people who can’t afford care, as well as those who can.

That doesn’t forgive our endless Quebec waiting lines or medical staffing shortages, but the U.S. treatment was better for me, partly because it isn’t for others.

All said, I’m glad I was in a U.S. hospital this time, which worked for me, if not necessarily for others.

And, yes, I’m back on my bike again, but cycling far more cautiously, determined to avoid care in either country’s medical system again.

From now on, call me no-speed Freed.

[email protected]

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