Friday, February 03, 2006

The three dollar doctor visit

Robert had a final test today to look for any blockage in this heart. None was found so he's in good shape and should return to us soon. He says he wants to be with his girls for Valentine's Day. Allison and I are anxious for his return; it hasn't been as much fun without him. I've spent most of my time lost in thought about whether to stay or go home. We always think of Robert as indestructible, always healthy and never ill and always lucky.

Yesterday Allison fell ill with a chest cold that made her cry when she coughed. Today I decided to take her to the Centro de Salud to see a doctor. There I had my first experience with a third world health facility. After struggling to understand the receptionist I determined she was asking for the patient's name and 30 pesos (that's about 3 dollars.) She typed out a receipt on an old manual typewriter and handed me a torn piece of paper with the number 8 scribbled on it. The rest of the ritual I understood---sit and wait to be called.

We sat in the waiting area with the other sick patients. Women with children, a mother nursing a baby, elderly people. That part was familiar enough, but it was the facility itself that absorbed my attention. It was of course, deteriorated and a little dirty. At one point I asked for the bathroom and upon opening the door found the toilet had flooded the floor. An assistant led us to another bathroom outside the back of the hospital, There was no soap or paper towels. Outside the door was a cardboard box filled with used syringes. A dusty, disgarded hospital bed sat beside two dirty mops under a tree. A clothesline full of hospital sheets waved in the breeze. Stray dogs wandered about.

I'm not even sure it was a doctor who examined Allison. She was dressed in street clothes and wore her black hair long and loose. She had a gold-plated front tooth and a lot of jewelry. She spoke no english so our communication was difficult, but she was patient with me and tender with Allison. She checked her throat, her ears, her heart with the standard implements and then weighed her. No infection, but she issued a prescription for Amoxicillin and cough syrup.

I thought about that hospital all day. By U.S. standards it was inferior. Having lived with such high standards all my life it's difficult to accept less. I mean, aren't hospitals supposed to be clean? In situations like this I kind of want to go back to being just a vacationer hanging out at the pool rather than the resident guest I am. I try hard to suspend my judgements and just watch and learn, and understand.

It occurs to me that having a child here has put me closer to the pulse of the town. I am in the same stream as the others with children. Seeing them off to school, buuying the things they need; the notebooks, the clothes, the medicines. I have to communicate with the pharmacist about administering Allison's medicine, and the storekeeper about what size socks a 6 year old wears. I see things a tourist would not. I see myself as a guest in their community and they are kindly making room for me, so I feel badly when I complain about what they lack, or what they overlook.

Poverty does not equal dispair. And what looks like poverty to me is just a lower standard of living. People here live in relative comfort. There's no begging on the streets. It's a family oriented town. People whistle at each other across the street, they hug and kiss, and smile. They just have a crappy hospital, so let's hope for good health. Salud.

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