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ONTARIO: Vacation heart attack in Mexico costs Ontario couple their life savings

After getting a clean bill of health from his doctor, Doug Whibley and wife Eleanor took a chance that all would be well and didn't buy travel insurance

NEWMARKET - Doug Whibley lay on the floor of the lobby of a hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, without a pulse, while his wife, Eleanor, waited for him out by the pool.

In an incredible stroke of luck, four EMS professionals were checking in that Feb. 11 morning and they leapt into action.

Two paramedics from Winnipeg began doing CPR chest compressions on the unconscious 78-year-old Newmarket man, without result, until their firefighter friend took over. A defibrillator was found — but it needed a new battery before they could use it.

Three shocks were administered, and eight ribs fractured with vigorous life-saving compressions, and Doug finally had a pulse again.

Hotel staff gave the shocking news to Eleanor, who rushed to the lobby to accompany Doug in the ambulance to the hospital.

“My dad is so lucky,” daughter Shelly Whibley-Smitten said. “He collapsed right in front of the concierge desk, grabbing his chest.

“He would not be alive if it were not for the EMS who were there.”

The telephone call that the four Whibley children received that Monday afternoon from Eleanor was “the worst call I have ever received in my life”, Shelly said.

The Newmarket residents had left for their vacation only two days earlier, a month after Doug received a clean bill of health from his doctor, she said.

Shelly and two of her siblings flew to Mexico Tuesday morning to help get them home as quickly and safely as possible, while their oldest brother stayed back to arrange for the air ambulance.

The Whibleys had taken this vacation without the expensive travel insurance, well aware of the risk but willing to take a chance all would be well.

But within days of Doug’s collapse, the Whibleys’ entire life savings were wiped out.

At the hospital in Mexico, it was made clear to the family that “the meter was running”, Shelly said, but Doug would not be released until US$40,000 was received for the bed, morphine, “a bit of oxygen” and the ambulance to the hospital.

Her heart dropped as she had looked at the 10-page itemized bill that was handed to her, all in Spanish, that initially was US$89,000 but was reduced when it was made clear no insurance coverage was available.

They scrambled to make arrangements, not only for a financial transfer but for an available bed for a cardiac patient back home, all of which needed to be coordinated with the availability of the air ambulance.

Everything came together when a family friend offered to quickly pick up the hospital tab on his US Visa until the family received the money from cashed investments, and a bed became available at Newmarket’s Southlake Regional Health Centre. Only then could a medevac team of two pilots and two nurses fly in on a Wednesday and make the return trip Thursday morning — at a cost of $64,000.

“It was a sickening amount of money,” Shelly said.

The siblings launched a GoFundMe page, with the hope of getting help to bring their father home, as well as alleviate the onerous burden of the medical costs. More than $14,200 of the $100,000 goal has been raised to date.

Her brother’s friend offered a loan of $45,000, and the siblings pooled together the remaining funds on their credit cards to pay for the air ambulance.

“Everyone pulled together to help my dad within 24 to 48 hours,” Shelly said.

Doug had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) procedure Feb. 25 at Southlake and returned to daughter Shelly’s Newmarket home yesterday, though he will undergo weeks of rehabilitation until he has recovered fully.

Doug underwent a triple bypass six years ago and had a heart attack at age 49, so Shelly said even if her parents had paid for the $4,000-plus travel insurance, her father’s “pre-existing condition” would likely have disqualified any coverage.

“It was a lesson learned,” Shelly acknowledged. “You really have to understand your (travel) insurance policy — and if you’re not prepared to lose your life savings like my parents have, don’t go.”

She advises travellers to “read the fine print” on travel and medical insurance policies.

“I said to my dad, the closest he’s going to get to Mexico now is Taco Bell in Newmarket,” she adds with a laugh.

She also suggested it’s important to ensure information such as insurance, banking and investment account numbers and passwords are organized and readily available for family members should a travel emergency or crisis occur.

The family continues to need help to overcome the financial devastation, Shelly said, and they remain incredibly grateful to the more than 100 friends, family and community members who showed their support.

“I don’t even know how to say thank you,” a momentarily speechless Shelly said. “I don’t even know what to say to the generosity of this scale.”

She acknowledges, too, her “TD family” — where she works as a communications manager — “who gave thousands of dollars even though they don’t even know my dad”.

On the GoFundMe page, Eleanor wrote, “Doug and I are deeply touched by the outpouring of love and support from so many people who have touched our lives during this past most difficult month. We felt your love and compassion, which has helped us get through this time. ...More than you'll ever know. We truly thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

“May God Bless each and every one of you. Doug is finally ready to come (home) but still has a lot of healing and rehab to do.”

“I think we got out of it pretty lucky,” Shelly said. “My dad is the greatest guy I know. He’s home — we have incredible health care in Ontario — and he’s safe.”

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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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