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Iconic skier's death points out U.S. health gap

Skier Maddie Bowman wears a band on her arm and a purple ribbon in rememberance of Canadian skier Sarah Burke during Winter X Games 2012 at Buttermilk Mountain on Saturday. Burke died Jan 19 from injuries she sustained in a training accident.

Since the death of Canadian skier Sarah Burke in January, fans and supporters from around the world have donated over $300,000 – more than enough to cover the massive U.S. medical bill generated by efforts to save her.

The outpouring of grief for Burke and the influx of funds are a tribute to a young woman who was a pioneer and legend in her sport. The need for a fundraiser — to help her grieving family avert bankruptcy — was viewed by some Canadians and U.S. observers as a condemnation of the U.S. health care system.

"The irony is that had the accident occurred in Canada… her care would have been covered because, unlike the U.S., Canada has a system of universal coverage," wrote Wendell Potter, an insurance executive-turned-whistleblower who writes for iWatch at the Center for Public Integrity. "No one in Canada finds themselves in that predicament, nor do they face losing their homes as many Americans do when they become critically ill or suffer an injury..."

Burke, who died at 29, was on skis by age five, and pursuing a professional skiing career before she left high school. She pioneered women’s halfpipe skiing and was instrumental in getting the event included in the X-Games, according to a profile in Sportsnet magazine of Canada.

UPDATE: Why are fans paying medical bills for a world-class skier?

"She was to freeskiing what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey or Michael Jordan was to basketball — the iconic face of a sport,” wrote Sportsnet reporter Dan Robson. "She built her world by conquering limits, both on the hill and off it."

After Burke’s crash while training on the Eagle Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah on Jan. 10, doctors fought to save her for nine days. She died Jan. 19, from a torn vertebral artery in her neck that caused bleeding in her brain.

Burke’s contribution to sport — not to mention her youth, beauty, charisma and fame — has no doubt helped the effort to generate donations to cover an operation, countless tests, care and hospitalization. The fundraising page on GiveForward.com late Monday showed that $302,535 had been raised. Burke’s publicist said that medical costs were expected to be about $200,000.

The fundraising page said that future contributions would go to a foundation “to honor Sarah's legacy and promote the ideals she valued and embodied."

The loss of Sarah Burke is no less painful for her loved ones, but with medical care covered through donations, the aftermath will not bring them additional hardship.

For many Americans, the hardship persists.

On Monday, Potter pointed to the plight of a 13-year-old Caroline Richmond on life support in Alabama after collapsing from a stroke, which turned out to be caused by leukemia. Her self-employed parents do not have health coverage.

“As it turns out, Caroline is one of more than 50 million men, women and children who do not have health insurance in the United States, which is why her family is in the same predicament as Sarah Burke’s,” Potter wrote.

The community has launched a multi-pronged effort to raise money to cover mounting medical costs for Carolyn — car washes, a bake sale, a fish fry and so on — but like most people who have life threatening medical conditions, she is not famous.

An estimated 700,000 American families file for bankruptcy every year because of medical debt, Potter said.

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