Beware! Hospitals in Latin America can kill you!

As a Canadian I am admittedly spoiled by our health care system. Despite waiting hours in Emergency and long waits for elective surgery or things like an MRI, which normally is six months minimum, the quality of care is exceptional and, of course, it’s free. Unlike the pathetic system in the US at least Canadians don’t have to worry about being bankrupted by serious illness. As the population ages; however, there is great concern over the costs which are enormous. The costs of everything from a stay in the hospital to supplies appears to be out of control. A huge percentage of government budgets, both federal and provincial goes to health care and it’s questionable how long this can be sustained. There’s already some challenges with private care being offered, plus people who are traveling overseas to avoid the waits, only because they can afford it. The system is far from ideal.

The issue with health care is, like many things, that you don’t appreciate it until you have something to compare to our system. I did.

First, during my time in Panama I was unlucky enough to have a gall bladder attack. It nearly killed me because the people who worked with me on the renovations were finished and not coming to work anymore. The nightmare tenants in the penthouse had been given the boot so I was basically alone. Even my girlfriend, Magaly, was not happy that I was going to be forced to return to Canada so she wasn’t coming over as she had done every day for nine months. The excruciating pain hit in the middle of the night. My cell phone had died because our power had been off for days, which was not unusual in Boquete. I basically laid on the floor writhing in pain, praying for any help. I believed I wasn’t going to make it.

Thankfully my electrician, Amilkar, just happened to drop by because he hadn’t seen me in a while. Thankfully he still had the key I had given him to open the gate because he would never have heard me yelling from my ground floor apartment. Obviously he was horrified when he found me laying on the floor in great pain. He called my friend Elizabeth to come over to take me to the hospital. She knew this was something more serious than the local clinic could handle so she took me to the public hospital in David, about an hour away.

By this point I was in a haze because of the pain and I don’t remember everything, but I do know that it took hours to finally see anyone and I don’t think I was sent to surgery for about nine hours. I vaguely remember that I was wheeled into the operating room and they were banging on the lights to get them to work. Not exactly reassuring.

I woke up in an interesting bed in recovery. It was a youth bed, not big enough for yours truly and it was broken. I kept sliding down to the foot of the bed and it was extremely painful to push myself back up again. Thankfully at least I was on morphine so the pain wasn’t intolerable. I had no idea what was coming though. Some time later in the day they wheeled me into a room with three other guys. Back then my Spanish was too weak to even attempt any conversation plus I didn’t much feel like socializing anyway. I was also too busy trying to stay up in my stupid bed.

The next day brought on more pain and I asked the nurse for morphine, but she said that the hospital had run out so now I was back in post surgery pain. Again because of my limited Spanish I had no real idea what exactly they had done other than remove my gall bladder. First time I ever thought about this organ and I hoped I would survive without it.

I don’t recall if I ever got any food or anything to drink because I’m quite sure it would have been terrible enough to remember. Somewhere around the third day the nurse insisted it was time for a shower and the toilet. It was a very painful walk all the way down the halls to the bathroom, carrying my IV, because they had no wheelchairs. When we got to the bathroom she turned on the water and threw me into a freezing cold shower. Took my breath away. No surprise that they had no hot water because most people in Panama don’t enjoy hot water either. I got out of the shower as quickly as I could and went to go to the toilet, but I sort of understood that the nurse was asking me where my toilet paper was. I didn’t know that you are supposed to bring your own.

Around the fifth day, I think, Amilkar and Elizabeth came to visit me. That morning I had been given a bill for six hundred and fifty dollars, which worried me because I didn’t have the money. Once Elizabeth heard about the horrible conditions in the hospital she and Amilkar came up with a scheme for me to escape and it worked. I figured that the hospital would track me down and press me to pay but I was leaving the country anyway and at least I was free of the hospital.

Now back at home when they heard the story my friends were horrified at what I had been through. I guess it gave them cause to wonder what would happen if they needed the hospital. When my Panamanian friends heard what hospital I had been in they were amazed that they didn’t kill me. Apparently there were numerous wrongful death lawsuits against the hospital, many from women who had not made it through childbirth. I soon learned, the hard way, that you better have the money if you want to go to a private American style hospital.

Only when I returned to Canada and found a doctor did I learn that the technique they had used in Panama was at least twenty years old. Today it’s basically day surgery where they make a tiny incision and you’re done. I was left with about a five inch scar and a huge bump from the archaic surgery technique. I guess I was happy that I had at least managed to survive this death hospital and they didn’t leave any instruments in me.

So I’m back to Canada, staying at my cousin’s in Toronto. After a few months I met Denise online and ended up moving to London for several years. Loathing life in London and approaching retirement age I started researching other warmer countries to go to to live out my life. My pensions would not be enough to be able to live in Canada so I had to find somewhere cheap. After extensive research for several months I decided on Ecuador for many reasons, not the least of which was their national health care plan. I left for Ecuador in December of 2014, heading for Cotacachi in the Andes.

My first experience with hospitals in Ecuador was when I became very ill as in sort of “out of it”. She called my driver who drove a truck barely functional with no springs. For some unknown reason they drove right by the public, read free, hospital in Otavalo and took me to a hospital in Ibarra, quite a distance away. Just like in Panama many things were broken and my doctor babbled away in Spanish which I barely understood. I only got that I was severely dehydrated, something that happens because of the high altitude. Only after four days and when I’m checking out do I learn that this is a private hospital. They present me with a bill for twelve hundred dollars US and ask for my credit card! That put a huge dent in my planned budget. I never got an explanation on why they took me to a private, very expensive hospital, but I suspected there was some sort of commission involved.

Next my landlady came down to my cabin and found me totally unresponsive. My cabin had a fireplace, the only source of heat, and I didn’t realize when I laid down for a brief nap that I had actually been poisoned by carbon monoxide. She called the ambulance and, thankfully, this time they took me to the public hospital in Otavalo, although I was not conscious. I only remember waking up in Emergency and understanding that the doctor told them I was twenty minutes from death! Boy, there’s an eye opener.

Although it’s a long story and one I’ve told elsewhere, I ended up moving to Cotacachi. The day I arrived to stay at the hostel I knew something was wrong. I had already been at altitude for a couple of months so I didn’t think that was the issue, but I sure knew I wasn’t right. They called for an ambulance which arrived in no more than five minutes and I was rushed to the public hospital in town. Again I was dehydrated so they gave me an IV for a few hours and then I was fine. A few months later I came down actually sick this time and was again taken to the same hospital. Although it was very noisy and hard to get any sleep they did take good care of me and I was home the same day.

Live and learn!