Elizabeth May was standing on the University of Victoria auditorium stage on June 29, congratulating a recent high school graduate, when a “sudden, unbearable, excruciating pain” hit her, like someone had “hit the side of my head with a two-by-four.”
“It felt like my head was going to split in two,” the leader of the Green Party of Canada told The Tyee.
May’s assistant helped get her home and gave her some Tylenol, worried she might be experiencing a migraine.
The pain was so bad, May said, she couldn’t see straight. She was “violently ill,” so she took a COVID test, which was negative, and went to bed and slept for 24 hours.
She’d been working 51 days in a row, often churning through 19-hour days leading up to Parliament’s summer recess.
At first, her husband thought she was just exhausted. It would be six days before May saw a doctor, and not until she was discharged from hospital that she learned she’d had a hemorrhagic stroke.
A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when an artery bleeds or bursts in your brain. It is less common than an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot restricts blood flow to the brain.
May, who is 69, hasn’t had a family doctor since her last doctor retired eight years ago. It used to be that when a doctor retired, they’d refer you to a new physician, she said. Now you sit on a wait-list, as she and her husband have for the last five years, and hope you can be connected with a new family doctor.
Around one million British Columbians don’t have a family doctor.
Being a federal party leader doesn’t offer a “fast track” when it comes to public health, May said. “I have to wait like everyone else.”
Because she hasn’t had a doctor for so long, May said, she doesn’t know what caused her stroke or if there were warning signs.
May said she now knows she has extremely high blood pressure, but she doesn’t know if that caused the stroke or is a result of it.
After May had slept for several days and was still experiencing impaired vision, her husband called 811 to speak with a nurse, who connected them with a doctor over the phone. The doctor recommended they go to Victoria General Hospital and said he’d call ahead so they could skip the emergency room lineup.
But when they arrived no one was expecting them, and after five hours in the waiting room, May asked her husband to take her back home so she could sleep.
A friend then recommended booking a walk-in appointment at a Shoreline Medical Society clinic.
When May finally met with a doctor there on July 5, they sent her directly to Saanich Peninsula Hospital, where she was immediately admitted.
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She was discharged July 9 and got an MRI on Aug. 5. The MRI confirmed she’d had a hemorrhagic stroke.
“There was a fair bit of time of not knowing,” May said.
The doctor she met at Shoreline Medical has become her family doctor, May said. “He called me and said, ‘You need to know how lucky you are. You could have died but you didn’t. It doesn’t look like there’s any damage; you just need to rest and recover,’” she said.
May said she doesn’t seem to be suffering from any lasting effects of the stroke, reporting her mood, health, energy and physical and mental well-being to be high.
It shouldn’t take having a stroke to get a family doctor in Canada, May said. Her husband, John, who is 76, still doesn’t have a family doctor.
May’s ideas on how to fix public health
May has some ideas for how to fix public health so other Canadians don’t have to go through the same thing she did.
She’d like to see a nurse’s station established at Parliament to check the blood pressure and vitals of MPs as they work long, stressful hours with little sleep.
At the federal level, she’d like to see the government ask for “accountability” about how provinces and territories spend their Canada Health Transfer payments.
May points to a Globe and Mail column by Andrew Coyne in which he calculated that federal transfer payments rose by 50 per cent per capita, after inflation, over the past two decades, while hospital wait times increased by 50 per cent over the same period.
Money provided by the federal government for health care doesn’t have to get spent on health care, May said, adding the money is occasionally spent on tax cuts, for example. This is a critique repeated in Coyne’s column.
She’d also like to see the federal government crack down on private health-care services. “Walmart, Telus telehealth — anything that offers health care to Canadians for money is a threat to public health that shouldn’t be allowed,” May said.
When contacted to respond to these critiques, Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, said provinces and territories are already required to report on their health care under the Canada Health Act Extra-billing and User Charges Information Regulations. Provinces and territories are also required to meet criteria and conditions for hospital and physician services under the Canada Health Act to get their “full” Canada Health Transfer funding, he said.
The federal government’s role in health care is one of support more than management, Johnson added. But work is being done across the country to increase the number of training seats for physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses, including adding new medical schools at Simon Fraser University, Toronto Metropolitan University and the University of Prince Edward Island.
Johnson said that last month federal, provincial and territorial ministers of health and mental health and addictions met in Prince Edward Island and committed to a study looking at how to meet future health-care demands over the next decade.
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At the provincial level, May said she’d like to reduce bureaucratic spending and increase investments to bolster the local health-care workforce. A lack of residencies and funding for training hospitals means young Canadian doctors are having to go to school or work internationally because there are no jobs for them here, she said.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix pushed back against that claim.
Right now 80 per cent of B.C.’s medical graduates stay in the province, he told The Tyee, compared with Alberta, which holds on to 60 per cent of its graduates. Around 20 per cent of medical graduates from Alberta come to practise in B.C., and around eight per cent of B.C. graduates go to Alberta.
B.C. is also making “significant” changes to “the ways we pay physicians, train and retain them,” Dix said.
Over the past five years, Dix said, the University of British Columbia has added 60 new postgraduate medical education positions in family medicine, cancer, surgery, maternity, seniors care and mental health and addiction, and this year it is adding 30 new positions for family medicine and 40 new undergraduate medical school seats. By 2028 there will be 48 new postgraduate medical education residency positions, he added.
The new Simon Fraser University medical school in Surrey expects to be accepting students by 2026, he said.
B.C. has also been working to increase how much it pays doctors.
On a personal level, May said she’s going to start taking breaks when she’s tired, rather than trying to push through fatigue.
“Going forward, I can still be the hardest-working MP without putting my life at risk,” she said.
Michelle Gamage, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee