Medical Care

September 10, 2014

It’s been my experience that when it comes to mission there are some topics that few want to discuss … sex and healthcare are among them. I’ll leave the former to someone else’s discretion and stick to the latter.

I think we shy away from talking about healthcare for a number of reasons. For one, no one wants to think about the possibility of getting sick, particularly when diseases like Malaria, Ebola, and Yellow Fever are on people’s minds when they travel to less developed areas around the globe. We know that there are many places that lack potable water, mosquitos can transmit malaria and dengue fever, and illnesses such as Chagas disease, among other parasites, can be transmitted by bugs, in water, by interaction with infected people, or through soil. And I suspect, precisely because of that knowledge, and the fact that health issues are often considered very private and taboo for public conversation, we don’t discuss them.

The reality is that missionaries are exposed to a good many potential infections. As such, healthcare is actually an important topic. I, for example, have had more vaccines than most, having traveled to a good many areas around the globe. I had become friends with the medic at the travel clinic in Brighton … and learned that her brother is a priest missionary. I have a yellow international certificate of vaccination that I keep with my passport which notes a list of vaccinations and dates, verifying that my yellow fever, typhoid, and tetanus vaccines are all up to date. While abroad, I carry malarial prophylaxis, Epipens and steroids to address allergic reactions, and a couple different antibiotics. I’ve also probably had more parasitic infections and blood viruses than most. As a testament to my experiential history, I once met with a specialist in Boston while seeking treatment for an infection I picked up in Ecuador. She asked me to tell her my story, finishing with an explanation of my current situation. When I was done she said, “I’ve never met anyone with such extensive medical knowledge for travel … you could have a graduate degree in infectious disease.” Unfortunately, she was probably right.

So by now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m taking about healthcare and infectious diseases. No, I don’t have an infectious disease … at least not one of which I’m aware. I have, however, been sick recently, which is what prompted this blog entry. As luck would have it, lunching with a friend on a Saturday afternoon I got a bad case of food poisoning … a REALLY bad case. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, though, that I was VERY sick. I ate almost nothing for 4 days, ran a fever, and was so ill that I had to have a friend take my dog, because I was unable to care for him.

One of the real drags of being a single missionary is going through the experience of being sick all alone. We all like to be pampered and cared for when we’re sick. That cup of chicken soup is not just about physical nourishment as much as it’s about someone caring for us. In my case, worrying about having a reaction to a medication, getting so sick that I needed emergency care, and so on, created yet another layer of stress given I had limited choices for getting immediate help.

In the States, we all take emergency rooms for granted. For the most part, they are reasonably close and only a car or ambulance ride away. In the ER, we’re reasonably confident there will be someone available with whom we can talk and explain what’s happening and the details of any complicating medical conditions. I happen to have an overly sensitive body that tends not to like medications. The last thing I wanted to have to do laying in a bed in a hospital was explain to a nurse or doctor why I can’t take certain medications … in Spanish! Fortunately, I am blessed with a friend in the area who is a nurse. While I was reluctant to ask someone for help, I mustered my nerve and contacted her early Sunday morning, explaining that I was sure I was in trouble. She asked a bunch of questions and within 30 minutes was at my door with medication and liquids, including sports drinks with electrolytes. After seeing me and learning more details of my situation, she strongly encouraged me to contact my doctor as soon as possible.

Thankfully, I have a great doctor who has told me to call her anytime … 24/7 … and also happens to be bilingual. While I have been blessed with good medical care in the States, I have to say that I’ve been exceedingly impressed with my medical care in Colombia. People often assume that doctors in other countries lack proper education, skill, and adequate tools. (As an aside, I remember going to a doctor in Paraguay in 1978. As he started screwing on a needle to a syringe, I decided I was much better!) My doctor here has always asked all the right questions, doesn’t order a bunch of unnecessary tests to protect herself from medical malpractice, nor does she have to justify her decisions and recommendations to a dysfunctional health insurance system. She makes appropriate assessments, listens carefully to me while asking clarifying questions, and then presents her analysis and recommendations. On this occasion, I called her on a Sunday morning and by afternoon we had made some decisions, she had ordered medication, and had the medication delivered direct to my door. In addition, she called me or requested I call her daily to check in, and occasionally recommended changes to my care plan.

Being sick is never a picnic, but is even more complicated and stressful for those living abroad. I give thanks for the blessings of good friends and the care of a good doctor.

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