Billy Kimmel is the baby who lived — and he may well turn out to be the baby who helped to save Obamacare in America.
But I am also thinking today of a baby who died 55 years ago. His name was Sandy Derhousoff. You’ve probably never heard of him — he was just nine months old in 1962, when he died of meningitis during the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike. And that may well have helped to save medicare in Canada.
Here is the story.
In 1962, the government of the province of Saskatchewan legislated the introduction of what we called medicare — in the United States, it would now be called “universal health care” or “single payer health insurance”. It was to come into effect on July 1, 1962, and it was the first time anywhere in North America a government had declared that every resident of the province was entitled to medical care paid for through provincial taxes.
The doctors were furious and so the medical associations organized the Doctors Strike — the strike started on July 1 and about 600 of the province’s 900 doctors participated. Technically, the doctors were just “out” or “on vacation” and there were still doctors doing emergency care scattered around the province.
But 79 hospitals across the province had to close. And when little Sandy got sick, his parents couldn’t find a doctor to treat him:
The shock of not having the family doctor at the other end of the telephone was abruptly brought home on the first day of the strike. When Mrs. Vicky Derhousoff put her nine-month-old son Carl [called “Sandy”] to bed in their home at Usherville, he was running a fever. Next morning the fever was higher. Peter Derhousoff tried to phone the doctors in nearby Preeceville, was told that both were on vacation. A nurse at the Preeceville Hospital told him to take the baby to Yorkton, 91 miles away. On the road, says Derhousoff, "I began to realize it was a race with death." Three miles from Yorkton, the baby went limp in his mother's arms. Derhousoff tried mouth-to-mouth breathing, but the baby was dead on arrival at the hospital. No one could say that the baby could have been saved had there been a doctor; a preliminary report showed he had meningitis of a virulent sort. But that did not ease the parents' anguish.
The strike didn’t end when news of Sandy’s death was reported — in fact, some blamed the government intransigence for his death, rather than the doctors who weren’t there to treat him. But it did make everyone recognize how important the struggle was and how vital it was to persevere.
There were a number of doctors who never supported the strike at all, and they went on to form “community clinics” to offer medical care with a different model. In the end, any public support for the strike collapsed. The Saskatchewan government became willing to make some compromises in its health insurance planning, and the doctors were finally willing to talk. The strike was called off after 23 days:
Public opinion swung against the anti-Medicare lobby partly due to the work of the pro-Medicare committees with much help from the Saskatchewan Farmers’ Union and the trade union movement, and partly because of a popular backlash against the excesses of the KOD [Keep Our Doctors, a public organization formed to oppose medicare]. The College of Physicians and Surgeons was forced to call off the strike after an arrangement with the government, known as the Saskatoon Agreement, was made on July 23, 1962. The agreement included some compromises and ambiguities which allowed the College to continue harassing community clinic doctors and to hinder the growth of alternatives to fee-for-service entrepreneurial medicine. However, the main point of the agreement was that medical insurance would remain government-controlled, compulsory, universal and reasonably comprehensive. An important beachhead with national significance had been established, and the plan immediately became popular.
The person who initiated medicare as a government priority in Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas, is still considered The Greatest Canadian. But I think little Sandy is also a pretty great Canadian.
He didn’t “save medicare” but, in a profound way, his death did clarify the stakes — a baby died to bring us medicare. And today, remembering his death is a solemn recognition of just how important this fight still is.