Insurance delay casts further shadow over Ottawa family's travel nightmare

Brian Seaby had emergency surgery in Spain, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He and his wife Carol contracted COVID-19. Now, Brian's cancer has been diagnosed as terminal. Hanging over all this heartache, the family is in a battle with its insurance company for a $220,000 medical bill.

‘Over everything hangs this $220,000 cloud,' says Carol Seaby, whose husband Brian has terminal cancer

Carol Seaby and her children have been trying to sort out a $220,000 insurance claim since the couple returned from Spain in March. Since then, Seaby and her husband Brian were diagnosed with COVID-19, and a few weeks ago, the family was told that Brian's cancer is terminal. 1:15

UPDATE | After this story was published, Sun Life apologized to the Seaby family and said it would cover the cost of the air ambulance. 

The Seaby family has endured unimaginable hardship over the past five months. 

In early March, Brian and Carol's dream vacation to Spain turned into a nightmare when he had to undergo emergency surgery to remove four tumours from his spine, which left him paralyzed from the chest down.

They were finally able to come home a few weeks later by booking a private medical flight, only to discover upon their return that they had both contracted COVID-19. 

A few weeks ago, the Seabys were dealt the worst blow of all: Brian's cancer is terminal. 

And in the midst of all this heartache, the family is embroiled in a battle with its insurance company for medical costs of nearly a quarter-million dollars.

"Over everything hangs this $220,000 cloud," Carol Seaby told the CBC. "We don't have a lot of time before we can give Brian peace of mind in this part of his life."

Carol and Brian Seaby, pictured on Brian's 66th birthday in July 2020. Brian is paralyzed from the chest down and his family uses a mechanical lift to take him out of bed. (Supplied/Seaby family)

'It was about living'

In the months since their return from Spain, Brian was admitted to rehab and, until recently, told the tumours were non-malignant. He was preparing for physiotherapy sessions and an active lifestyle that included sledge hockey.

"It was about living," said Carol. "It was just a couple of weeks ago that we realized he's actually dying." 

But she said that Brian was not improving in rehab and that eventually, San Francisco specialists consulting with the Ottawa Hospital diagnosed him with a rare form of gliosarcoma in his spine.

The last few months have been gruelling, she confessed, but she wants to stay positive and focused on Brian — whether it's what fruit he'd like for breakfast or making sure he's comfortable being moved out of his bed by mechanical lift.

Carol, a registered nurse, has spent as much time as she could caring for Brian, including sleeping on the couch in his hospital room in Spain. When she had COVID-19, she said the hardest part was that she had to keep away from him for two months.

"I'm bound and determined not to hit the wall," said Carol. "My time will come when I can — I just really want to look after him."

We have no idea if they're going to pay it or not … it weighs on everything.- Karen Seaby, Brian and Carol's youngest daughter

She said it was unusual for her to be away from his bedside even for the length of the interview with CBC.

"This is a long time for me not to be in his room because if he closes his eyes, I do not know at this point if he's going to open them." 

Brian and Carol Seaby pictured here during their previous travels. The Ottawa couple saw the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain when Brian required emergency surgery in March. (Supplied/Seaby family)

Weight of debt

Casting a further shadow onto the Seaby family's dark days is the fight they're having with their insurer Sun Life, which the family says has not reimbursed them for the emergency flight from Spain.

Brian, a retired civil servant, is covered through the public service health plan, which allows for reimbursement up to $500,000 for emergency travel medical expenses, including evacuation.

In a statement to CBC, Sun Life said the situation is complex and made worse by the pandemic.

"We empathize with the family's decision to arrange for their travel home and are pleased they arrived safely," the statement said. "We continue discussions with all those involved."

The couple's children are now dealing with the insurance company so that Carol can focus on Brian's care.

According to Karen Seaby, the couple's youngest daughter, Sun Life paid for transportation to the airport in Spain and the medical transport that took Brian from the Montreal airport to the Ottawa hospital — but not the actual flight.

Karen Seaby and her mother Carol Seaby say an unresolved claim over the flight that brought her father Brian Seaby home from Spain during the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on for five months. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"And they don't tell us why, so we're stuck here with this huge debt and we have no idea if they're going to pay it or not," said Karen. "It weighs on everything."

The family says they checked with the company every step of the way, but the claim still hasn't been resolved five months later. The cost is on the family's line of credit.

Also in Spain earlier this year, Karen came home before her father was hospitalized. She had recently found out she was pregnant and cut the trip short as coronavirus cases began to spike in Europe.

Karen said it's been hard to cope with her father's sudden illness, that he was so athletic and healthy that he seemed invincible.

"It's overwhelming … especially to be pregnant, knowing that the likelihood is he's not going to meet his grandson."