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Medicare naysayer famous in U.S. but blasted as traitor back home

Canadian citizen Shona Holmes (R) joins members of the House Republican leadership (L-R) Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) for a brief news conference about health care policy at the U.S. Capitol July 23, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla/2009 Getty Images

South of the border, she's become the poster girl for privatized health care and a familiar face on television. But here in Canada, Shona Holmes of Waterdown, Ont., has become vilified as a traitor who sold out her country to endorse a broken health-care system.

"There's been death threats on me ... it's just been awful, absolutely awful," Ms. Holmes said in an interview yesterday, breaking down several times in tears. "It's just absolutely asinine that somebody could speak out about their beliefs and be lynched."

She was recently catapulted into the spotlight after appearing in a U.S. commercial urging Americans to reject government-run health care. In the ad, sponsored by conservative group Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Ms. Holmes spoke of suffering from a brain tumour and soberly declared, "If I'd relied on my government for health care, I'd be dead."

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The commercial was lapped up by conservative lobbyists and Ms. Holmes has since appeared on CNN and Fox News; she also recently appeared in Washington to give testimony before Congress.

But north of the 49th parallel, there has been a torrent of vitriol in the media and blogosphere, accusing Ms. Holmes of lying about her health and turning her back on the Canadian health-care system.

On Facebook, a group called "Lets deport Shona Holmes" is littered with messages decrying her as "a liar and a traitor" who should "move to the U.S. if you like it so much."

The outpouring of anger has shocked the 45-year-old family mediator, leaving her afraid for her safety. She's increased security at her home and even given the family dog to her daughter, because of threats that her lawn will be poisoned.

"My life has been turned upside down over this," she said. "I'm terribly hurt. ... But quite honestly I'm quite offended that people are so cold and callous to sick people."

Among the accusations levied against Ms. Holmes are that she exaggerated the severity of her brain tumour and it was actually a Rathke's cleft cyst, which is said to be benign. Ms. Holmes counters that doctors did diagnose her with a Rathke's cleft cyst, but it is still considered a tumour, which her American doctors told her would certainly cause death if not removed immediately.

She said the cyst was pushing on her pituitary gland and causing endocrine issues; she also feared permanent vision loss. Ms. Holmes was first diagnosed with a small tumour in 1998, but doctors said it was not a cause for concern and should be monitored closely.

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Then in 2005, she began suffering symptoms that included headaches and vision loss and went to see her family doctor. She was put on a waiting list of six and four months to see an endocrinologist and neurologist, respectively.

Desperate, Ms. Holmes decided to go the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., which was willing to see her within two days. Today, she maintains she did everything she could to find adequate treatment in Canada, e-mailing and phoning every doctor she could.

The Mayo Clinic diagnosed her and advised her to have surgery in Canada immediately. But when she returned home, she was still unable to find immediate treatment and went back to the Mayo Clinic, which removed her tumour and restored her vision.

Ms. Holmes's cross-border hospital trips cost her more than $97,000 (U.S.) and she has since sued OHIP for reimbursement, an appeal that is still in the works. She also filed a 2007 lawsuit with another plaintiff, Lindsay McCreith of Newmarket, Ont., alleging the Ontario government's monopoly on health care is unconstitutional. On July 14, the Attorney-General responded to the lawsuit by filing a defence claim, denying that either Ms. Holmes or Mr. McCreith were prevented from accessing timely treatment. Yesterday, Ontario Health Minister David Caplan also defended the province's health care, calling it a system "every Ontarian can be proud of."

Ms. Holmes disputed that, however, and said it's a misconception that Canada has a perfect health-care system. She said it was this perception that motivated her to participate in the commercial.

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