Kerry Thalhofer, a longtime local logger but not experienced as a public speaker, never in his wildest dreams could have imagined speaking before a forum in Taiwan on medical tourism.
But so he did, two days before undergoing effective and affordable surgery to receive the two new knees he needed to end years of pain.
Thalhofer and his wife of 40 years, Terry, both 61, have been lifelong outdoor sports enthusiasts. The longtime Whatcom County residents are grandparents with four grown children, all college graduates. Terry is part of the adjunct faculty at Whatcom Community College.
Question: Kerry, how long did you have healthy knees?
Kerry: I skied on a college scholarship in Vermont. I graduated from Oregon State University and I skied on many Ski to Sea teams. In fact, in the late 1980s I was on the only team with all Whatcom County residents, Lake Whatcom Watercraft, ever to win the Ski to Sea race.
Q: When did you begin having knee problems?
Kerry: About 18 years ago (at the time he and two partners formed EcoLog, a company that specializes in thinning, not clear-cutting), I began having problems and my doctor, a good friend, told me I needed new knees. It's hard to say why. I guess I had just worn them out. It got really bad in the last five years, and the last year was especially brutal.
Q: How did you seek help?
Kerry: My doctor referred me to a specialist (in Skagit County). He wanted to do one knee at a time, and that would have been fine. But we realized we just couldn't afford the entire procedure.
Terry: We had a personal insurance policy capped at $12,000 for hospitalization, and it would have cost much more, even for only two days. We would have had Kerry's surgery here, but we just couldn't afford it (they're too young for Medicare). The entire cost would have been more than $100,000, including at least $70,000 out of pocket.
Kerry: We helped put our four kids through college and the economy had a huge effect on our finances in recent years.
Q: What led to the Taiwan trip?
Kerry: Our family doctor suggested that we look into medical tourism. He had a patient who came through (the experience overseas) with an excellent outcome at a fraction of the cost.
Terry: I started checking on the Internet and found it's a whole new world. Medical tourism is a growing industry, with the Medical Tourist Association. I looked into companies that belong to the association and found Passport Medical, based in Vancouver (B.C.). Their president, Mark Semple, met with us in May.
We originally considered Costa Rica, but he encouraged us to consider Taiwan. He felt the overall cost would be less. We went with two other couples and we became a friendly support group.
Q: How did the surgery go?
Kerry: Great! I was asked to speak at the International Medical Tourism Forum at Taipei on June 11 and I had the surgery on June 13 in Lukong (a small city), with both knees replaced at the same time. It's the same procedure, the same steel and plastic and same prosthetics we have here. When I woke up, I was in less pain than I had been in in several years. I was up and walking on the third day, but I stayed in the hospital two weeks for rehab. They offered more time in the hospital, but I returned June 27 because I needed to get back to work.
Q: And the total cost?
Terry: It was about $21,000 for everything, doctors, surgery, hospitalization. Including the flights, we took about $25,000 out of our retirement plan. We had to pay out of pocket. We could not afford it here.
Q: How do you feel about the experience?
Kerry: It was phenomenal. We were treated like royalty. It was amazing! The doctors and nurses were wonderful. I would recommend others in pain consider medical tourism (rather than suffer).
Terry: You can do it on your own, but it makes it easier to work with a company like Medical Passport.
Q: Do you believe we should have universal health care in America?
Kerry: We need to have something different from what we've got. We shouldn't be bankrupting our population over health care.
TO LEARN MORE
To read Terry Thalhofer's blog on medical tourism, go to kandtintaiwan.blogspot.com.
Michelle Nolan is a freelance reporter.