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A Hike and A Ride

29 August 03

Chasm, BC, Canada

On August 19th, I pulled into Wilcox Creek Campground on the Icefields Parkway, near the Athabasca Glacier. On the 20th, I took a 7 mile hike up over Wilcox Pass, behind the Icefields Centre. It started out as a simple walk up the bluff behind the Centre, to get a few pictures of Dome and Athabasca glaciers. But what a hike! I got to talking to some fellow travelers up there, and we all agreed that we had never taken a walk that was so soon or so well rewarded, and cost us so little effort. The skies were clear and sunny, with a crisp intermittent breeze.

Like every hike I've taken since Glacier Park, this one started off entirely vertical, but once I attained the clifftop, it evened out into a gradual rise to the pass through an alpine meadow. I found it so agreeable that after a light lunch I walked on through the Pass and down the other side to the highway. Then I easily hitched a ride back 5 or 6 kilometers to the campground.

The 21st was spent lazing around, enjoying the unusually smoke-free sky, reading various guidebooks, and writing letters. Around 3 pm I started yawning a lot, and by 3:30 I was having trouble getting enough air. I had a headache. I tried lying down for a while, but couldn't go to sleep. Then a little after 4 the left side of my chest started hurting. I got up and took some nitro and aspirin, but it didn't seem to help. Instead it soon got worse, traveling up into my throat. I tried the nitro again. Couldn't tell the difference. I began to sweat in the cool air.

Uh oh. What does all this remind me of?

I got myself up from there and managed to quickly gather medicine, close up the trailer, and start driving on down to the Icefields Centre in the truck, one hand on the wheel and one on my chest. When I got to the parking lot, I saw the stairs. No way I'm getting up those, so I did a quick U in the middle of the highway. I knew I was getting erratic, but somehow I managed not to hit anybody. I went up the bus ramp, parked under a "no parking" sign, and staggered to a ticket window.

"Is there medical help to be had here?"

There was. Five minutes after I was on oxygen, I was feeling fine again. The pain went away. The Park Wardens called for an ambulance from Jasper, then bundled me into a van and drove to meet it. I was sucking down plenty of o2 all the while. On the way, they asked me if I had Travel Insurance. Nope, just the regular kind.

Seton Hospital in Jasper, I'm told, has suffered many budget cuts in recent years. Nowadays, it's an emergency room attached to an ever-growing nursing home. I was a little unnerved by the arrival of the doctor. Except for being blond, he was a ringer for Maynard G. Krebs. With a Dutch accent. He was wearing a wrinkled pair of too-large shorts and a loose Hawaiian shirt, a la Hawkeye. Maybe they called him from home, or something. He kept rubbing his nose.

He had brilliant blue eyes, with pinpoint pupils. I couldn't help it. The thought raced through my head: "Have I got a junky for a doctor?" The lights were bright. That might explain it. Paranoia often accompanies a heart attack.

While I was being hooked up for an electrocardiogram, the ambulance driver saw a slight gap and sidled up to the table.

"uh, hate to do this, but I've got your bill here. Got a credit card?"

"How much is it?"

"$483....uh, no, that's $843."

I blinked. "Want to try again?"

"No, that's it." Well, I was having a heart attack. I gave it to him. The electrocardiogram showed nothing abnormal. A few minutes passed. A tech came in to draw blood. I had been waiting for this, because I knew the enzyme test was pretty dependable.

"Uh, I need to see your credit card..." Good grief. Okay, $108 and a few hours later, blood work shows no heart damage. I'm feeling a little better. Doctor wants to admit me overnight, talks on the phone to Edmonton, decides to recommend seeing a cardiologist there.


A nurse rolled me off to an empty ward, hooked me up to an IV. Then she said, "I hate to do this, but I need to get an imprint of your card..." I laughed with only a touch of hysteria, and handed it over.

I was exhausted. I lay back and tried to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, though, I sensed something looming over me. It was the ambulance driver.

"Forget something?"

"Uh, doctor's sending you to Edmonton tomorrow. I'm driving you, so I need to see your credit card again?"

"How much?"

"Well, it's a long way, so it's kinda steep. $2365."

Like hell. "That's okay. I'm feeling better. I'll drive myself."

He seemed stunned. "Uh, uh, uh, maybe you'd like to see doctor."


He went away. After a bit here comes Maynard G. Krebs, baggy shorts, goatee, and all. He made his case. "You've got insurance. You are alone. You may have a ticking bomb in your chest. I think, from what you've told me, that a piece of the lining in your artery is trying to let go. Periodically it comes up like a little flap and partially blocks blood flow. If it turns loose altogether, which it may at any moment, and you are alone.... you can die pretty quickly. And if you are driving, you may take someone with you."

Maynard was making sense. I thought about it a moment, and said, "Okay, send in the vulture." I gave the boy my card. He said, "Of course, if you were Canadian, none of this would cost you a cent."

I was to hear that a lot over the next few days.

Though I paid first class, the ride to Edmonton wasn't in the shiny new thing they were driving the day before. It was having a radio installed. At 7 am they brought round a 10 year old rattletrap that bounced me ragged all the way into Edmonton. A bit like being thrown in the back of a pickup. And there were fumes coming in from somewhere. I don't think the back doors sealed properly.

So, dear friends, here is one day's special price for camping semi-remotely and having angina: Ambulance, $3218. Overnight hospital stay, $2464. Doctor's fee, $400. All totaled: $6082, Canadian currency. And this only delivered me to the doors of University Hospital in Edmonton, where I was to spend nearly a week.

I know, I know. I'm not ungrateful. And I'm alive to tell the tale. But it's enough to give a guy a heart attack.


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