I found myself in need of medical care while on the island of Ometepe. Going to the doctor is never an enjoyable experience in the best of times. Especially for this girl, who’s first stop when sick is Web MD and my collection of teas and essential oils. Language barriers and a lack of complete trust in Western medicine as well as wariness of local doctors made it more difficult here in Nicaragua.
First, a moment for some brief Nicaraguan history. One of the benefits of the Sandinista uprising in the late seventies was access to free healthcare for all Nicaraguans. However, the quality of said healthcare can vary widely. IMF demands in the mid-nineties requiring less government spending led to a massive layoff of doctors and then the closing of many medical centers that served rural areas. Medical centers now may or may not be staffed with trained doctors. The medical equipment being used may or may not be sanitized. I’ve heard horror stories about women finding themselves in emergency situations in hospitals with non-working toilets and blood on the floor. Eek!
That said, there are many highly-trained doctors here working hard to serve the needs of the people. Resources are limited. Many hospitals lack high tech equipment and it’s not unheard of for family of patients to run to a local pharmacy to purchase a medicine needed for treatment. In fact, while the healthcare is free, patients are required to pay for their medicine.
If you find yourself in need of visiting one of these hospitals or health centers for an overnight stay, be sure to pack bed linens, towels, toilet paper, and be prepared to provide your own food.
I knew most of this going in, but what I did not know when I set off for the medical center was that I would be staying there for the night. Thank goodness I had somebody with me to help navigate the system. Not only was this helpful in interpreting the language – it’s amazing how quickly my spanish skills fail me when my body is not feeling well – but it was also helpful for running out to purchase gently used sheets for the beds, medicine, and juice and cookies – the only comida I want when not feeling well.
The camaraderie in the hospitals can’t be beat. There were six other beds in the room I was in, four of which were filled. One with a woman with her brand new baby, and two others in for complaints I never learned the details of. New mama had her bed closest to me, and was quick to offer her roll of toilet paper when I realized that was another item on the “you provide” list that I didn’t have with me. All of the women were friendly and chatty, popping by each other beds to see how everyone was feeling, and keeping up a constant chatter throughout the evening. They also were helpful with my shaky spanish – which, I should interject, truly is improving.
The hospitals here have no rules regarding visitors, a fact I was grateful for as it meant I didn’t have to spend the night alone. They also have no rules regarding where those visitors can accompany you. In other words, there are no closed doors, no patients-only areas. This also comforted me greatly, as it meant that I always had somebody with me to help communicate with the doctors and nurses.
After one night in the medical center in Ometepe, it was off to a larger city which had better medical care and – lucky, lucky me – an english speaking doctor. They patched me right up there, and then it was back to Granada to recover at the house of a friend.
I did purchase traveler’s insurance before I left with the thought that I would use it should any medical emergencies come up. The insurance came in handy when la casa was robbed and I lost my backpack, but I’m grateful that I haven’t needed it for this latest snafu. The grand total for a night’s stay in a medical center and some time spent in a proper hospital – absolutely nothing. I was also happy that I didn’t need all of the medicine that I purchased at the medical center on the island, so some got left behind – hopefully to help the next person who comes in and needs it. The medicine I did purchase – some antiobiotics – ran about $15. My doctor and the employees at the pharmacy were all apologetic about such a high price – a price I was more than willing to pay for quick treatment of medicine.
It’s really a nurturing experience to not have to worry about bills and insurance when you’re already in a vulnerable place and not feeling well. Understand, though, that the medicine that cost so little for me represents a quarter or half of some people’s monthly salaries – and that these medicines may be prohibitively expensive for many. After my experience, I was asked if I opted for a private hospital over a public hospital. Many extranjeros go the route of paying for care in these private facilities – an option not available to much of the Nicaraguan population.
I was lucky to encounter so many kind strangers – a fact not limited to just this experience, but really and truly applicable to all of my time here in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguense are a people who pride themselves on hospitality. This proffered hospitality is so often accompanied with good humour and kind wishes. I feel that I’m in a good, supportive place no matter my state of health. Though I’m certainly feeling more grateful now for my health.