I had thought that taking some time out to learn a bit more Spanish on my own and sit around all day playing guitar might be a good idea. Ending up in a Hospital in Guatemala wasn’t really the delivery method I had in mind.
Every Thursday evening my Spanish school, PLQ (Proyecto Linguistica Quetzalteco) has a pickup football game (soccer). I had cut my foot open while my brother Kevin and I were surfing in El Zonte, El Salvador, so I didn’t end up playing for the first few weeks. But when my foot finally healed I decided to join the group headed to the field.
My first time there went great. Or, rather, it was fun but I am not the best at team sports. The second week out I was feeling much better about my ability to kick the ball around the field – and that was when it happened.
The field we play on is covered, surrounded tightly by a fence with a metal plate on the bottom of it. I was running after the ball near said fence, went to kick it, missed, and slammed my foot right into the plate. An intelligent individual would have known immediately to go see a doctor. But apparently ‘intelligent’ is just not me.
My foot hurt, I knew something was wrong, but I truly thought I could just walk it off, or in this case, keep playing the remaining 30 minutes of the game, albeit as goalie.
In my continuing infinite wisdom I then proceeded to a party Quetaltrekkers was having. I was actually scheduled to start a 3 month volunteer stint as a hiking guide with Quetaltrekkers on the following Monday. I danced the night away, walked home a dozen blocks (still hurting of course), and even went to school the next day.
It wasn’t until my foot started to swell and my Spanish teacher insisted I go see a doctor that it dawned on me something might seriously be wrong. Yes, only then.
There is a local Red Cross near the school, so I ambled over there, and quickly realized that although I can speak some conversational Spanish, I am still lacking the kind of words one would use in a medical situation. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it was frustrating nonetheless.
So I wandered back to the school, found the American girl, Olivia, who acts as their translator, and hobbled back to the Red Cross.
Apparently the question I was asked and didn’t understand was do I agree they need to call a doctor in to take and X-ray and look at my foot. “Yes, yes I would like that,” I replied. I’m still not sure why that was a production. Olivia’s translations did however prove invaluable as we proceeded to get the X-ray of my foot, find out that I had managed to fracture a small part off the rear of the second bone in the big toe of my right foot.
My options according to the Doc, a cast that might help keep the broken part in place, but I should really get surgery.
Deciding What to do
Awesome. So there I was, in Guatemala with a broken foot and no idea what I should do. It’s amazing how your plans can change in a moment. No more hiking for me, and could I even keep traveling? If I stay, what would be the cost of having surgery in Guatemala? Is the hospital clean? Do the doctors know what they’re doing? How can I live here afterwards and how hard is that going to be?
And if I go home to Canada, where do I go? Where can I live since I don’t have an apartment anymore? How will I get around? What’s it going to cost me? Will I be able to get surgery right away or will I have to wait months? Can I even travel home or is this foot just going to keep getting worse?
I had made a call to my travel insurance company and they just told me to go home. They weren’t going to pay for anything that wasn’t an emergency, which was more or less the insurance I knew I had bought. (I actually learned later that as the surgery was not booked in advance it was considered an emergency)
The deciding factor was testimony from a friend of mine who, due to unforeseen circumstances, had just had major surgery in a hospital in Guatemala. Apparently, not only did the doctors actually know what they were doing, but health care at the general hospital was actually free.
Some of the teachers at the school also told me that the general hospital was actually preferable to the private one as they performed more surgeries and were much more experienced.
There was also the uncertainty of whether or not I would get surgery in any reasonable space of time if I returned home. Finally, I also had a number of friends and even the hostel owner step up and offer to give me a hand getting the things I might need. I think that knowing I had a good group of friends here that were willing to give me a hand was a big factor in deciding to stay.
So Saturday morning, 24 hours after breaking my foot, the decision was made, and I was going to stay and get the surgery in Guatemala.
The Hospital in Guatemala
It didn’t take long for me to start wondering if I’d made the right decision. I hadn’t actually been to the hospital in Xela before, and seeing it might have swayed me a bit. Run down is about the best term I can use for the state of this facility; dirt parking lot, up-heaved sidewalks, chunks missing out of the concrete walls, water stains on the ceiling. A pristine facility this was not.
Olivia, Andrea, and I went to the hospital armed with a guitar, books, pencils for drawing, and a host of other things we figured would be necessary for the long wait. To our pleasant surprise, we were walked straight into the trauma section and I was seated next to the casting area.
We noticed a plastic patio chair at the desk with the arm completely wrapped in plaster. When we asked if the arm of the chair had broken we were informed that, no, they simply casted it for fun.
After talking to a few doctors and having what seemed like an army of them wearing crocs discuss my case, I was ushered to a bed to wait.
A horrible nurse took my blood, made my arm look like something out of Requiem for a Dream, and Andrea was asked to take a needle full of my blood across the street for testing. As it turns out, they don’t have the facilities to test blood at the hospital, that’s somewhere else, and an extra cost. Olivia was already out at that point following directions given to her to find two metal pins for my foot at one of the local medical supply stores. Yeah, they didn’t have the pins at the hospital either.
This was already getting interesting.
The needles were new and came out of a package, meaning they at least were sterile, and I didn’t see the instruments but I had seen enough of their procedures at that point to feel comfortable with how clean things would be. All that said, in the surgery room, if it didn’t need to be clean, it wasn’t.
The doctors needed to splay out my arms and the surgery table didn’t have little side tables for that, so they used plywood. It that was stained with dried blood. Not mine. The little clip that goes on your finger to monitor your heart rate and blood oxygen levels also had blood on it. Again, not mine.
I was starting to wonder whether I should be getting off the table and hobbling my way back to Canada, but the next thing I remember was waking up to them wrapping up my foot. It was all over, for better or for worse.
For my 30th birthday instead of blowing out candles, I got budget surgery. I suppose it wasn’t the grand party one might typically imagine, but I know damn well I’ll never forget that birthday.
I was wheeled into the recovery ward to wait two hours before being moved to the general ward. Any time I woke up out of my drug induced slumber I had a Kill Bill moment; I would stare at my toes and command them to move, and they of course would not.
I have a hereditary liver condition and thus the surgeons had elected not to put me under but instead to gas me and freeze my right leg from the knee down. It was nearly morning before any of the commands I sent to my toes resulted in movement.
The General Ward
I’m not sure why there was a police officer posted in my ward the entire time I was there, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me, but I’m thankful he was there. I hadn’t had much to eat that day and the little the hospital served for dinner didn’t help me much.
As it turned out, Andrea and Olivia had had to use all my cash on the pins, so when the snack lady came by and I had nothing to pay for my peanuts. In a show of true generosity, the officer I had been chatting with put up a Quetal (Guatemalan dollar) for me.
It would have also been helpful to know I should bring my own spoon or fork and cup, as they do not supply those either.
Andrea and Olivia had been kind enough to leave me with the guitar that we’d brought with us and I was treated to the musical styling of nearly everyone who could pluck a tune that evening and the next morning. A friend of one other the other patients must have picked up the guitar a half-dozen times, a Dr. Pérez serenaded me with a love song as it was the only song he knew, and any patient who was mobile wandered in to play or listen.
I woke up Sunday morning to light pouring through the ward window. Between my own discomfort and the screams of pain coming from one of the other patients I had not slept much. That said I was in remarkably good spirits.
I think the only thing that actually bothered me about my visit was staring out the window that morning at Santa Maria, a volcano I’d hiked several weeks earlier and was supposed to hike again with Quetzaltrekkers. But I wasn’t going to be going up there again anytime soon, if at all, the thought was a bit disheartening.
On Sunday afternoon some of my friends thought they would pay me a visit, and when they got there the good doctor Pérez felt I was in good enough shape to make my exit.
So how do you find a friend at the hospital in Guatemala?
You follow the people pointing and saying “the gringo is that way.” Not only was I likely the only gringo there, I had apparently made a name for myself with the guitar as my friends were repeatedly asked “are you looking for Chris?’
They brought me a birthday sticky bun with a candle in it, which I quickly blew out because of concerns over the oxygen bottle near me exploding. I scarfed down a few buns, gave the rest to the other patients sharing my ward, and made good my escape.
I was now time to start healing and sitting on my butt for the next month and a half. At least I’d have time to play the guitar and keep learning Spanish, not all was lost.
Special thanks to Olivia, Andrea, Joanne, Kristin for all their help. Also thanks to Luke, Alex (I can’t believe you came to visit in that condition), Ali, Emily, and Cristalyne (the other broken traveler) for visiting me. A big thanks to all my friends down here for their help and support. I wouldn’t still be in Guatemala without you!