An international student has been billed more than $120,000 after an emergency visit to the hospital for severe stomach pain spiralled into a three-week-long visit consisting of medical tests, procedures and recovery — from both surgery and COVID-19.
Calvin Lugalambi describes the pain he felt on May 2 as unbearable; his chronic abdominal pain was so severe that he could not stop vomiting and, in turn, became severely dehydrated.
The sudden sickness prompted a call for an ambulance to take Lugalambi to Victoria General Hospital.
The initial treatment, which would be followed by a positive COVID-19 test and more bad news, is among the costly line items on various invoices he has since received, owing to issues with his health insurance.
"I do appreciate the care that I received. I’m alive, that is what matters most," Lugalambi told the Free Press. "But I cannot pay this money. I’m an international student, I’m already struggling to pay for everything else, because the fees we pay is very expensive. Where I’m from, we don’t have the money to pay for things like that, but we come here for the opportunity."
“I do appreciate the care that I received. I’m alive, that is what matters most. But I cannot pay this money. I’m an international student, I’m already struggling to pay for everything else, because the fees we pay is very expensive." – Calvin Lugalambi
Last week, Lugalambi’s friends created a GoFundMe page in the hopes of raising tens of thousands of dollars to cover his bills and expenses related to flying his mother to Winnipeg to care for him during his recovery so that he does not have to worry about the crippling debt or his student permit being affected by an inability to pay it.
The international student and his twin brother, who are in their early 20s, flew to Canada from their home country of Uganda in 2018 to study in Winnipeg.
Their move took place around the same time the Progressive Conservative government repealed an amendment to the Health Services Insurances Act that provided post-secondary students from abroad with the universal health-care coverage their domestic peers have.
Schools have since launched different plans for their international students to purchase private insurance.
The University of Manitoba has an international health plan in partnership with Manitoba Blue Cross for 12 months worth of coverage. The International College of Manitoba (ICM), a post-secondary preparation school that accepts international students such as Lugalambi and upon completion of foundational courses, allows them to transfer to the U of M, offers coverage via Guard.Me.
One week after Lugalambi finished his final winter term at ICM and four months before he was to start studying engineering at U of M this fall, he was admitted to hospital for what he would later learn was discomfort because of an intestinal obstruction.
He said it came as a shock when staff informed him that his student insurance was expired. The next day, he experienced shock once again — both when he learned he needed to be transferred to St. Boniface Hospital for surgery to remove the blockage and not long after, when he was told he needed to be taken to a COVID-19 unit.
Lugalambi said he believes he contracted the virus at Victoria General. He had not been informed he was a close contact of a case before entering the hospital and none of his roommates, his brother included, tested positive for the virus.
Because of a quarantine period — interrupted when he was rushed into surgery because of his deteriorating and life-threatening intestinal issues — and multiple scans, procedures, complications and recovery time, he spent 24 days in care.
“It blows my mind that something like this can even happen in Canada.” – Friend Brett Carter
Guard.Me approved Lugalambi for a temporary transition policy for two months, starting May 4. When he tried to expense hospital charges, however, the insurer he had relied on for coverage since 2018 informed him it would not cover expenses linked to a "pre-existing condition" — which had been diagnosed May 2.
Guard.Me did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
After being discharged May 25, Lugalambi was mailed several invoices. Combined, he owes up to $122,750.16, a figure that has led to him emailing every person he can think of for help — the health minister, ICM's principal and a social worker at the hospital, among them.
ICM principal Robert Daudet said in an email Monday students are required to hold Guard.Me coverage when they are registered in studies. If they arrive early, take a leave of absence, or take a gap semester prior to continuing further studies at the U of M they are eligible to purchase additional private insurance, he wrote
Lugalambi said his situation demonstrates the importance both of providing international students with fair insurance and that educational institutions keep pupils informed about their coverage status.
“I just hope this fund inspires (Canadians) to pay it forward and be grateful for what we have in this country.” – Brett Carter
One payment option the hospital has proposed is to have Lugalambi pay monthly instalments of $1,000 for the next decade. He said costly tuition and accommodation expenses make that figure unworkable.
"It blows my mind that something like this can even happen in Canada," said Brett Carter, a friend of the Lugalambi twins, who started a GoFundMe page last week to help raise cash to cover the medical costs.
The bills could have been smaller had Lugalambi not contracted COVID-19, which forced him to stay in hospital longer, said Carter, noting his friend was charged $4,899 per night during his stay.
He added, "I just hope this fund inspires (Canadians) to pay it forward and be grateful for what we have in this country."
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority directed a reporter's request to the province Monday.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Manitoba Health noted that educational institutions offer supplemental medical insurance and international students can also purchase private plans, but there are cases where patients do not have insurance and require care.
"In those situations, the regional health authority will work directly with the individual to resolve any issues, including issues related to costs," wrote the spokesperson.
"We encourage this individual to continue to work with the region."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.