British Columbia

Australian couple owes $60K after B.C. snowboarding accident

Ross Pointer is lucky to be walking after landing on a jagged stump, but now he's on the hook for $60,000 in hospital bills his insurance won't pay.

Couple bought travel insurance for year-long Canadian trip, but company says snow sports aren't covered

Ross Pointer, 39, recovering in hospital in Trail, B.C., after a snowboarding accident and surgeries to repair his right buttock. (Kalinda McColl)

When Ross Pointer fell snowboarding on a favourite run near Nelson, B.C., in January, he hit something hard and thought he might have broken his tailbone.

The Australian man turned around to see a jagged stump, covered in his own blood and pieces of flesh.

"I literally tore my butt open," he told CBC.

Two surgeries and a hospital stay later, Pointer, 39, feels lucky to be able to walk.

But now the Australian man and his partner are saddled with a medical bill of more than $60,000 their travel insurance won't pay because of a disagreement over what coverage they actually bought.

Pointer and McColl planned to spend the winter snowboarding in B.C's West Kootenay region, including Whitewater Ski Resort near Nelson, which is known for its powder. (Jeremy Van Walsh/Whitewater Ski Resort)

Year-long adventure

Pointer, 39, and his partner Kalindra McColl, 33, arrived in Canada last May, planning to travel all summer through northern B.C., Alaska and the Yukon, then spend the winter snowboarding in West Kootenay powder.

The Australian couple were house sitting outside of Nelson when they went to Whitewater Ski Resort Jan. 22.

On Giddyup Gully, an "extreme" rated route through trees, Pointer's board caught on something, and he came down hard.

"I fell on my backside and was impaled on a stump," he said. "I looked around and I just saw all my blood and flesh all over the jagged stump and I kind of got a bit freaked out."

McColl stayed with him, screaming for help while he slipped in and out of consciousness, losing blood.

A month after leaving hospital, Pointer is again able to walk and grateful he's had no serious complications post-surgery. (Bob Keating/CBC)

3 mm away

The ski patrol arrived within 15 minutes, having heard reports of McColl's cries for help. They bandaged Pointer to slow his blood loss and loaded him into a sled, then a skidoo, then an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the mountain.

He was rushed to Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail, more than an hour away, where a surgeon was available to operate.

As the doctors cleaned shards of wood from Pointer's right buttock, they saw how close he'd come to much greater injury, Pointer said.

"According to the surgeon, it missed ripping my colon out by about 3 mm, or the thickness of the colon wall."

His sacrum — the triangular vertebra at the end of the spine — was shattered, and his sciatic nerve, running down the leg, was very nearly severed.

"As bad as monetary things may be, I'm very lucky to be able to walk," said Pointer.

Pointer required two surgeries to remove wood shards and his broken sacrum, after the stump tore through his right buttock, nearly reaching his rectum. (Kalinda McColl)

No snow sports

While Pointer's physical recovery continues, he and McColl now say they're in financial trouble because their travel insurance won't cover the surgeries or hospital bills, which have reached $60,000 and may still grow.

McColl said they chose their insurer, Travel Insuranz, specifically because it offered optional coverage for snow sports.

When she bought the policy online last year, McColl says she opted for snow sports coverage over certain dates when they planned to be on the mountain, including Jan. 22.

She didn't realize until she was at the hospital, with Pointer in agony, that the insurance certificate she was issued said "Snow Sports Cover: no."

"I thought well that's really strange, but perhaps because we bought a year-long policy and the snow sports only covered a very small period of that, that they hadn't included it as part of the whole policy."

After four days of wrangling with the insurance company, McColl said she was told it had no record of their snow sports coverage.

"Because I've had lots of policies before, I didn't look through the certificate with a fine-tooth comb," said McColl. "Obviously I'm kicking myself now."

The couple provided a copy of their insurance certificate to CBC News, which read, "you should read this Certificate carefully and if it is not correct contact Travel Insuranz."

Eight days after surgery, with hospital bills they already couldn't afford, McColl took Pointer out of hospital.

'Unfortunate case'

In a written statement to CBC News, Travel Insuranz stood by its assertion that Pointer and McColl did not purchase additional snow coverage. 

It also confirmed that an online summary of their purchase showed that to be the case, and they could have changed their coverage during a two-week grace period after they bought it. 

Travel Insuranz also said McColl and Pointer confirmed they had read and understood the insurance policy's terms and conditions before they accepted.  

"We hope that this has gone some way to explaining why the insurers were not in a position to pay the medical expenses related to the accident," said the company. 

"This is a very unfortunate case and we appreciate that it has been a difficult time for the insured persons."

Project Dead Stump

Now, the couple is warning other travellers to check their policies carefully and keep careful records or even screen grabs of their online insurance purchase.

They're also appealing to friends and family back home in Australia for financial help, using the crowdfunding site OzCrowd.

"Project Dead Stump — Rebuilding Ross' Buns!!!" the site reads. Between that site and the direct donations, they have raised about $2,000.

Pointer is still hoping the insurance company may change its mind.

"Financially it would put us in a very difficult situation. We can't really afford to pay for it."

With files from Kiran Dhillon and Bob Keating