Medical emergency buries int’l student in debt. Now, he’s championing for better healthcare coverage for students

international student insurance
Healthcare can be mind-blowingly expensive — that’s something Calvin Lugalambi from Uganda had to learn the hard way as an international student in Canada. Source: Calvin Lugalambi

Healthcare can be mind-blowingly expensive — that’s something Calvin Lugalambi from Uganda had to learn the hard way as an international student in Canada. His experience taught him about the importance of researching international student insurance before travelling abroad.

His ordeal began last May. Lugalambi was completing some foundational courses at the International College of Manitoba that would allow him to continue his studies in civil engineering at the University of Manitoba. While he was between two schools, he experienced severe abdominal pain, landing him in urgent care at Winnipeg’s Victoria General Hospital. He was later sent to St. Boniface Hospital for an emergency surgery. 

In a GoFundMe campaign, Lugalambi shared his hospital receipts, including a medical bill from St. Boniface Hospital worth 126,000 Canadian dollars due immediately. Because he wasn’t yet a student at the University of Manitoba, he wasn’t part of their international student insurance plan. Fast forward to today, the international student is still collecting funds to pay off his massive debt.

There is a silver lining to his story, however — the Ugandan student’s case has garnered plenty of media attention, so much so that there are talks in the provincial parliament to bring back healthcare coverage for international students and immigrants. “I would not like to see my situation happen to anyone else,” Lugalambi tells Study International via email.  

We talk to him about his hospital experience, the importance of international student insurance, and why, despite his ordeal, he still values a Canadian education: 

Walk us through your interest in civil engineering.

It’s always been an interest of mine from a young age. I was fascinated by the idea of how things worked, how things were made and what they were made of. 

I earned the nickname “Mr. Curious” from one of my uncles. I’ve also been an avid fan of watching documentaries about historic buildings, cities around the world and the advancement of engineering. 

My desire to study civil engineering was fueled by a personal desire to contribute to the proper development and improvement of the structural infrastructure in my home country of Uganda. Transport, water system networks, electricity distribution and health could all be done better. 

Can you share your experience so far at the University of Manitoba in Canada?

My educational journey has been favourable and engaging so far. I’ve continuously been able to connect with many people, travel and experience the wonderful Canadian nature. 

It hasn’t been easy but nothing comes easy for those striving for greatness. I would definitely recommend international students to visit and experience Canada.

Can you tell us about your hospital experience last year? What obstacles did you face with your international student insurance?

My experience was very tough as I was unaware of how severe my condition was. However, I was more concerned about recovering and not knowing how long the process would take took a toll on me. 

I arrived first at Winnipeg’s Victoria General Hospital in an ambulance where I was then admitted. After close monitoring, the team at the hospital informed me that I needed to be transferred to Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital for urgent surgical attention.

There, I spent over three weeks after having bowel resection surgery to clear the blockage of my small intestines. I’m grateful for the staff care during my stay at both hospitals but my greatest thanks go to the good Lord for preserving my life and giving me the strength to persevere through a very tough time.

Tell us about your COVID-19 experience.

I contracted COVID-19 at the hospital which meant I had to spend even more time there. Being an international student, I already pay much higher than domestic students in tuition fees. 

This has been heavily taxing on my family and me — mentally, financially and physically. However, through all of this, I’m staying positive and optimistic.

What’s the current situation with your international student insurance and medical bills?

As of yet, I’ve not been able to pay off my medical bills. I already have the responsibility to pay tuition and this additional amount, which is very large, is something I don’t have.

At the moment, we’re trying to engage with the government and the necessary parties to help us. I’m pretty sure the government, university or hospital has the capacity to do more and assist me through these difficult times but I’ve yet to hear back from them.

However, I would like to thank the Canadian Federation of Students, the Manitoba Chapter in general, the president and her team for taking up my case. We’re campaigning to bring back healthcare coverage for all international students and immigrants in Manitoba. 

I would not like to see my situation happen to anyone else. We’ve managed to get the conversation going at the provincial parliament for discussion and review with the help of some members of the legislative assembly. Hoping for a positive outcome on this matter. 

In regards to the lack of clear information on international student insurance, what do you think should be done?

The coverage for international student insurance should be brought back from the Pallister government previously revoking it in 2018. It serves no benefit at all as international students contribute a fair amount to the economy of Manitoba. 

International students also pay taxes along with higher tuition fees. We shouldn’t be treated as cash cows. Secondly, the institution and government should provide clear and more information to students and immigrants before their arrival on how to navigate the Canadian system. 

This can be done through support programmes and services available. Foreign students are an economic and social asset for the country and should be treated fairly.

Despite all of this, why did you decide to stay in Canada?

I came to Canada to pursue my hopes and dreams. I’m also not one to back down in the face of adversity. Giving up is not an option for me and I feel that Canada offers a myriad of opportunities for success. 

It’s also a country known for its friendly environment; it is conducive for networking across a broad spectrum of people because it’s so diverse. Many international students are able to study at good universities, build skills and engage in the workforce — which is a great thing Canada has to offer. 

Tell us about the local food compared to those found back home?

It’s great in Canada but not as amazing and nutritious as back home in Uganda. My favourite foods here are Chinese, Indian and Mexican. I like the blend of spices and the variety.

What would you advise a student looking to study abroad in Canada?

Canada is a good place to be. However, knowledge and information is power and this isn’t provided to you before your arrival. 

My advice is to ask all the right questions and get answers to them. Pursue this information from all parties so you can easily find your way when you arrive. 

As a land of opportunity, be ready and open to new experiences. Make friends and build connections and travel as much as you can.