It's been an exhausting and unexpected past few days because my friend Esther, who is travelling with me and taking Spanish classes in Antigua, fell victim to the notorious traveller's sickness. We think that it was from a glass of water she drank from a "filtered" sink. That night, we discovered it was a faulty filter when she woke up at 3 AM with severe stomach pains and continued to throw up until 7 AM, when our host family called a doctor. Up until then, all of this was to be expected for the most part. In my previous travels, I too have had many a debilitating traveller's sickness and they usually have gone away in a few days.
Our mistake? Calling a doctor. But it gave us some interesting insight into the corruption of the private health care in Guatemala and reminded us of our vulnerablility as foreigners in this country. So here's the story...
At 7 AM our host family called a doctor because they were worried for Esther. But since it was so early they called a 24 hr emergency doctor who could come to the house. The doctor came into our room and, after a quick consultation, said that Esther should go to the hospital. In hindsight we should have waited a day to see if the conditions improved, before hastily sending her to the hospital. But since she was in so much pain, she agreed to go even though she did not have international health insurance.
While she was in the hospital I sought out advice from different acquaintances I've met in Guatemala-- other tourists and Esther's spanish teacher here in Antigua. All of them said the hospitalization was unnecessary so early on and that the hospital that the doctor brought her too was an extremely expensive private hospital that has a reputation for dramatizing tourists illnesses in order to make money. Since she had no insurance, they all told me the bill was going to be expensive and I should check her out as soon as possible.
So by 12 in the afternoon I decided to go to the hospital to tell her the deal. The hospital was extremely slow and the nurses took about 45 minutes to even come into her room so we could inform them of her plans to check out. The doctor was very reluctant to discharge Esther and argued with her insistently. Finally Esther explained that she could not afford to stay there longer, since each minute was costing money. He said that her parents would not want her to leave the hospital and they could pay for her to stay overnight-- an unfounded assumption on his behalf. But Esther continued to tell him that she was advised to leave by multiple people, including her Spanish teacher. Finally, after 2 hours of arguing with the reluctant doctors and nurses in our imperfect Spanish, Esther checked out and paid the expensive bill. We then went to the pharmacy and picked up the common over-the-counter Cyproflaxin and Suero used to treat stomach illnesses.
We thought it was all done and Esther was resting in her bed at the homestay when the doctor came back to the house at 9 PM- when we had not even solicited his help! He wrote her 2 perscriptions-- 1 of which she already had from the pharmacy. He also charged Esther $75 for the visit, which he only accepted in cash-- under the table. Meaning he made 100% profit separate from the hospital fees, did not have to pay tax, and had no form of a receipt to give Esther.
He then asked me to accompany him to the pharmacy. He started to interrogate me about why Esther had left. I explained she couldn't afford the private hospital expenses to stay over night but he continued to ask me who advised her. I mentioned her Spanish teacher and he asked me for his name, which I mistakenly divulged.
The next day Esther's Spanish teacher said that the doctor had called him and yelled at him for inhibiting his business and threatened that, in turn, he was going to discourage the Spanish school's business. The teacher explained that he was simply trying to help, since he knew Esther didn't have insurance and could not afford to stay overnight for an already unnecessary hospitalization. To which the doctor replied that the teacher should pay for it, or her parents could have paid, since they were from the U.S. and therefore had enough money.
So, $200 unnecessary dollars later, Esther is doing well. But being away from home has definitely hit me in this confusing and corrupt situation. Working at Semillero I am surrounded by kids and staff that are very understanding, encouraging, and honest. But I now realize that I can't expect or assume that kind of treatment outside of the organization and I am now much more aware of my status as a vulnerable foreigner...