An unapologetic Danny Williams says he was aware his trip to the United States for heart surgery earlier this month would spark outcry, but he concluded his personal health trumped any public fallout over the decision.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Williams said he went to Miami to have a "minimally invasive" surgery for an ailment first detected nearly a year ago, based on the advice of his doctors.
"This was my heart, my choice and my health," Williams said late Monday from his condominium in Sarasota, Fla.
"I did not sign away my right to get the best possible health care for myself when I entered politics."
The 60-year-old Williams told The Canadian Press that doctors detected a heart murmur last spring and told him that one of his heart valves wasn't closing properly, creating a leakage.
He said he was told at the time that the problem was "moderate" and that he should come back for a checkup in six months.
Eight months later, in December, his doctors told him the problem had become severe and urged him to get his valve repaired immediately or risk heart failure, he said.
'I would've been criticized if I had stayed in Canada and had been perceived as jumping a line or a wait list.'— Premier Danny Williams
His doctors in Canada presented him with two options — a full or partial sternotomy, both of which would've required breaking bones, he said.
He said he spoke with, and provided his medical information to, a leading cardiac surgeon in New Jersey who is also from Newfoundland and Labrador. The surgeon advised him to seek treatment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami.
That's where he was treated by Dr. Joseph Lamelas, a cardiac surgeon who has performed more than 8,000 open-heart surgeries.
Williams said Lamelas made an incision under his arm that didn't require any bone breakage.
"I wanted to get in, get out fast, get back to work in a short period of time," the premier said.
Williams said he didn't announce his departure south of the border because he didn't want to create "a media gong show," but added that criticism would've followed him had he chose to have surgery in Canada.
"I would've been criticized if I had stayed in Canada and had been perceived as jumping a line or a wait list .… I accept that. That's public life," he said.
"(But) this is not a unique phenomenon to me. This is something that happens with lots of families throughout this country, so I make no apologies for that."
CBC News requested an interview with Williams, but his office refused, saying the premier wouldn't be talking to the CBC about his health.
In an email to the CBC, Elizabeth Matthews, Williams's director of communications, said that the day before his surgery there were some "very unfortunate and unnecessary comments made about the premier on the CBC" that Matthews said were irrelevant and hurtful to his family, and for that reason the premier won't do interviews with the CBC about his health care.
Faith in Canadian health care
Williams said his decision to go to the U.S. did not reflect any lack of faith in his own province's health care system.
"I have the utmost confidence in our own health care system in Newfoundland and Labrador, but we are just over half a million people," he said.
"We do whatever we can to provide the best possible health care that we can in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Canadian health care system has a great reputation, but this is a very specialized piece of surgery that had to be done, and I went to somebody who's doing this three or four times a day, five, six days a week."
He quipped that he had "a heart of a 40-year-old, so that gives me 20 years new life," and said he intends to run in the next provincial election in 2011.
"I'm probably going to be around for a long time, hopefully, if God willing," he said.
Williams said he paid for the treatment, but added he would seek any refunds he might be eligible for in Canada.
"If I'm entitled to any reimbursement from any Canadian health care system or any provincial health care system, then obviously I will apply for that as anybody else would," he said.
"But I wrote out the cheque myself and paid for it myself and to this point, I haven't even looked into the possibility of any reimbursement. I don't know what I'm entitled to, if anything, and if it's nothing, then so be it."
He is expected back at work in early March.