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My search for a doctor in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb


This drawing of a latrine is painted on a wall next to the main square in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca. It was paid for by the National Health, as a preventative medicine strategy.

There are four kinds of Gringos in Mexico: the ones who are sick, the ones who are getting sick, the ones who are getting over being sick, and the ones who worry themselves sick in anticipation of being sick. Oh, yeah, I forgot: there are also the ones who have never been sick, and don't give it a minute's thought, but they will get theirs, just you wait!

If you don't think that North-Americans obsess about the state of their stomach while in Mexico, then take a look at any guidebook. Notice how much space is devoted to advice on how to avoid and/or cure La Turista? Diarrhea is one of the central topics on the flight down, and the return flight features lengthy postmortems on it's acquisition, severity, length, and cures.

Scratch an extranjero (stranger, foreigner, outsider) and you will find a deep, rich vein of opinion / superstition / guesswork / anecdote on how to avoid The Terrible Trots: don't eat this, make sure you eat plenty of that, watch out for this or that deadly combination. Personally, I believe that the only possible way to prevent loose bowels is to take your nourishment intravenously, and that is far from safe! Now, don't get me wrong: I am every bit as obsessed and compulsed about my intestinal well-being as anyone is. I go through all the motions. I get sick anyway.

The latest craze making the rounds of The Terrified is Pepto Bismol. The People's Guide (c), a very thoughtful and useful publication, has confirmed that it works. I took it for three weeks -- my first three weeks in Mexico -- and didn't have a bit of trouble. I stopped taking it when I realized that, with no plans to return to the U.S., Pepto Bismol could possibly turn into a life sentence. Now, I eat raw garlic. Well, what the heck, it makes me FEEL protected, and who knows, it might even work. If it doesn't work for you, don't blame me -- and this publication does not carry medical malpractice insurance.

Mexicans, too, are big on Medicine. It seems like there are pharmacies on every corner, and an ultrasound machine every other block. Analytical laboratories spring up like mushrooms, and mushrooms (along with all the other naturopathic remedies known -- and sometimes unknown -- to man) can be found in every neighborhood, with a learned -- but unlicensed -- herbalist to dispense them. It is said that many Mexicans use antibiotics incorrectly and too frequently. Almost all drugs can be had without benefit of a prescription. Doctors -- as in the U.S. -- are of varying quality.

Last Saturday, I went looking for a doctor. A chronic and irritating minor problem was flaring up. The first three doctors on my list were closed for the weekend. The fourth is an expatriate from the U.S.A, who has been here for more than 20 years. His equipment clearly predates his arrival. He told me, by way of introduction, that he had "gone back" to practice in the U.S.A. several years ago, but that he had not been made to feel very welcome. He said that Norteamericanos only care about avoiding malpractice suits. He asked if I knew that kitchen-table surgery is still legal in Mexico. He informed me that his ingrate son, for whom he had paid medical school tuition in the U.S.A., had returned for a visit and criticized the way he practices medicine. He gave me something for the symptoms, and a list of lab work he wanted done, and told me to come back in a week. The medicine seems to be helping. The lab work is scheduled for tomorrow. I think I'll take the results to one of the first three doctor s on my list.

(Actually, there are many fine providers of Medical Care in Oaxaca. Well-trained private practitioners are available in all specialties at reasonable prices.)

Tonight, I'm cooking spaghetti with shrimp. Now, let's see: do I soak the shrimp in iodine, or clorox? Should I boil the tomatoes for 30 minutes? Must I treat the hot chocolate with lime juice? Oh, the heck with it! I think I'll just buy a tamale off a street vendor. And maybe, just to be safe, I'll take a little Pepto Bismol.

If you have comments or suggestions for Stan, you can contact him at:

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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