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My three nights in a Mexican hospital

Allan Cogan

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Mexico Connect called " A few kind words on behalf of Mexicans". My wife, Cecilia, and I had had several exceptionally nice things happen to us when we first arrived in Mexico, a couple of which I simply don't believe would ever happen in Canada. For example….a landlord returned almost a full month's rent to us because we found a better place to live and wanted to move in immediately. Try to imagine that happening in any city up north.

In recent weeks I've had occasion to reflect once again on the generosity and thoughtfulness of Mexicans. For the very first time in my life - at my ripe old age - I had occasion to go into hospital. I found myself with an irregular heartbeat and with a few strange things going on in my head which suggested there were interruptions in the blood flow to my brain.

After talking the symptoms over with a friend who had had a similar experience I figured I'd better follow her advice and see her cardiologist. A few days later I was in the doctor's office in Guadalajara being given ECGs, echocardiograms, stress tests and a 24-hour ECG, wearing a special harness while I went about my normal chores. I have to say, too, that I'd never seen such an array of computers and electronic equipment as that doctor had in his consulting room. Nothing "third world" in this man's set-up.

Anyway, the verdict, after I returned with my 24 hour ECG, was that my heart is in good shape. However, the suspicion was that I had a problem with the electrical connections that control the action and timing of the heart's muscles. In other words, if I were an automobile, my motor was running good but something was wrong with my timing. To determine that exactly, the doctor wanted me to go to hospital for three nights, to undergo more invasive tests, including an angiogram. This is accomplished by opening a hole in an artery in the groin and inserting a series of wires to check out the heart's electrical connections. I know that's probably not technically correct, but the doctor's English was only fair and my Spanish is only fair, too. However, it all sounded serious enough, so I agreed to go. Two days later I was in a hospital bed.

Santa Margarita hospital in downtown Guadalajara is a lovely place. It's a hundred year old building run by Carmelite nuns but, despite its age, it has been completely renovated inside, although the sunny open courtyards and arches and the other colonial touches have all been retained. Nuns stride purposefully along the wide stone corridors. Religious paintings, frescos and murals adorn the walls. A large impressive chapel is an integral part of the installation. Yet, as I was to discover, the surgical facilities are as complete and modern as any hospital anywhere.

Cecilia and I checked in at 9 a.m. I should mention that it was a great relief for me to find that my wife was expected to accompany me and that a cot was provided for her in my room. The room itself was small but complete. It had a bathroom and shower and adequate storage space. When we arrived we were told that the angiogram and the other tests wouldn't happen until 8.30 that evening.

"So…is this it?" we asked ourselves. "Do we just sit around for twelve hours?" We had brought books and crossword puzzles. However, we needn't have worried about how we were going to spend our time.

I've heard people say you never get any peace and quiet in a hospital. Now I can speak from experience on that subject. Within minutes three nurses walked in and my arm was hooked up to a dextrose dripper while someone else took my blood pressure and pulse rate and yet another walked off with blood samples. When they were through an elderly nun called Sylvie came and strapped electrodes on my arms, legs and chest and proceeded to take an ECG. It was the old-fashioned type, unlike the ECG in the doctor's office, where the readings show up on a computer screen. Instead, long strips of paper tapes spewed out over the bed. Everybody was friendly and talkative, in the Mexican style. Sylvie told us she came to work at the hospital 44 years ago, when she was 18 years old.

Shortly after Sylvie a young male intern came in with a long form and a bunch of routine questions - age, where born, how did your parents die? etc. etc. - all in Spanish. Then the doctor peeked in for a few minutes, just to see how we were doing. Then someone came in with comida, which, if it had been hot, rather than warm, would have been excellent. Anyway, after my very first visit to a hospital, I can confirm that it's true, you never get any peace and quiet in a hospital.

Actually, over the three days and nights we were there, we found the hospital was our best opportunity ever to practice Spanish. No one spoke English. We used more Spanish in one morning there than we would in six months in Ajijic.

That first evening, we had visitors. We live in a condominium in Ajijic in which two of the six houses are owned by Mexicans. They're business people from Guadalajara who come out on the weekends, just to get away from the city. The place in Ajijic is their second home. They knew I was in the hospital and the two couples, Margarita and Javiar and Enrique and Guillermina, showed up with pastries and a basket of fruit. I should also add that their English isn't too good either, so our Spanish got even more of a workout that evening.

While we were chatting an elderly nun walked in the room and - surprise! - she turned out to be Javiar's former teacher from years and years ago. A great deal of hugging and embracing and catching up went on after that. Later, Javiar discovered that my cardiologist was an old school chum. So there was more hand-shaking and catching up to do. So, in one way or another, our twelve hour wait passed quite nicely, thank you.

At 8.30 p.m. I was taken upstairs to undergo my tests. The two couples stayed to keep Cecilia company in a room adjoining the operating theater. However, my tests took three hours - three hours in which I watched and heard my every heartbeat - as irregular as ever - on a nearby computer, and observed x-ray screens where I could see thin wires probing my chest. Again, my heart was declared to be in great shape, but the doctor told me that I had interruptions in some nerve fibers that were causing a problem and that I needed a pacemaker. This was no great surprise to me, as my friend in Ajijic had ended up with one. I had also done a bit of reading on the subject and suspected my problem wasn't going to be solved by taking drugs for the rest of my life. Anyway, to my surprise, the question at hand was: "Did I want the pacemaker now or tomorrow."

As it was midnight my question was: "Do these guys want to stay another hour and a half to do the job?" I was told that was no problem, there was even another patient coming in after me. So I opted to have the pacemaker inserted right then and there. It didn't seem to be a big deal as far as the medical staff were concerned and they went to work. I was surprised at where they put it, right under my collarbone on the right side, seemingly about six inches from my ear. With only a local anaesthetic it made for a rather intimate operation. In any event, I'm now the owner of a state-of-the-art marca paso, to give it it's Spanish name. From now on, I'll be careful around microwaves and airports. I also find I'm a member of a not-very-exclusive club. I just never knew so many people had pacemakers!

Anyway, at 1.30 a.m. I was taken back to my room to find that my four neighbors from Ajijic had just left. They had insisted on staying with Cecilia while I was undergoing my treatment.

The next two days were a carbon copy of the previous day with constant checks of temperature, blood pressure and pulse, electrocardiograms, adjustments of my dextrose solution, examinations of the incision where the pacemaker was inserted, changes of sheets and…oh, yes…instructions to remain "tranquillo". The meals were good - even the jello for breakfast. Cena, the light Mexican evening meal, served at around 6 p.m. introduced me to a drink which I liked called avena - an oat-based concoction somewhat like ovaltine - thick and creamy and just the thing to settle you down for a quiet evening. Cecilia wasn't offered any meals by the hospital but our thoughtful Ajijic neighbors once again came through when they phoned and offered to bring comida over for her. It wasn't necessary as there was a cafeteria on the premises and Cecilia was surviving. But we both appreciated the thought.

During all this I was rather impressed with the hours the doctor kept. After all, he was there for my surgery at 1.30 a.m. on the first night and back again at 8.30 the next morning. He even returned to check up on me at 10.30 that night - and was back again at 8.30 the third morning. I could be wrong, but I'm not sure that's a phenomenon I'd find if I were in a hospital up north.

We had come to thoroughly appreciate our Mexican neighbors by this time because throughout the three days they continued to look in on us, bringing freshly-squeezed orange juice, fruit salad and flan and other goodies. Again, if the situations were reversed, say, with immigrants to our cities, would we be as zealous in our attention to their needs?

The real payoff, however, came when it was time to check out of the hospital and Cecilia went to the cashier's office. One of the neighbors, Margarita, went with her. There was no argument over the hospital bill but the anticipated doctor's fee was mentioned. It didn't have to be paid at that time but, nevertheless, Margarita thought it was on the high side and she had a discussion with Guillermina, a lady who has a talent for business.

We forgot all about it. However, what we didn't know was that Guillermina had started making enquiries among family members in the medical profession and had come to the conclusion that the doctor's fee should definitely be lower. Anyway, a few days later we went to the doctor for an ECG and to have my stitches removed. Lo and behold, Giullermina was there with her 15 year old English-speaking son, Enrique. After my checkup, she went in to talk to the doctor bearing a sheet of numbers and prices. A long, complicated discussion took place, all in Spanish, of course. I knew what was happening and I'll admit to being somewhat embarrassed. But the doctor seemed to take it all quite calmly and, after some discussion, I'm delighted to report that the fee was reduced 20 per cent on the spot. However, as soon as she won that round, Guillermina started into a more intense level of discussions. "She's going for thirty per cent now," young Enrique whispered to me. In conclusion, the doctor said he would talk to his colleagues at the hospital and see about further reductions.

When we were out in the street I mentioned to Guillermina that I didn't believe one would ever see a scene like that in a doctor's office where we came from. But she assured me that it wasn't that unusual in Mexico and, indeed, the doctor didn't seem to be too shocked that the discussion even took place.

Anyway, a few days later young Enrique called us to say that the doctor had agreed to reduce the total cost by as much as $2,000 Cdn. I recalled an article in Mexico Connect in December about how gringos are being gouged more and more by shopkeepers and professional people. I suppose that we had obviously run into an example of just that. I have to say I still like the doctor, even though, yes, of course, I resent being overcharged. But I like even more the active concern that our Mexican neighbors demonstrated - including that sizeable saving of money.

I'm happy to say that, bit by bit, I'm getting used to my pacemaker, even though, at the time of writing, I'm doing things slowly and trying to remain tranquillo, as opposed to doing everything at my usual brisk pace. The doctor assures me that I'll be back to normal in a month or two and, in time, I'll even be able to return to striding up the local mountain every morning with Cecilia. If and when that happens, I'll have forgotten the financial aspect of the story. However, you can be sure that the part I'll never forget is the wonderful generosity and concern of my Mexican neighbors.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 1999 by Allan Cogan © 1999
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