A Foreigner’s Experience with Costa Rica’s Health Care System
By Eric Baudry
At first, I tried to ignore the intense discomfort in my stomach, presuming it would resolve itself like every previous pain in my life. But as my energy faded, and the discomfort turned into the worst pain in my life, my stoicism was steadily being replaced by concern. I didn’t know yet that my appendix was close to rupturing, but I knew something was very wrong, and that despite my preference to let my body heal itself, I needed to seek expert advice. About 6 hours after leaving my house to get an ultrasound I was being wheeled into surgery for emergency removal of my very inflamed appendix in Costa Rica’s health care system.
I came to Costa Rica from Los Angeles, excited to integrate with a country and a culture which more closely match my environmental and social values. In my time here I’ve deeply enjoyed the kindness, sense of community, and the helpfulness of almost every tico I’ve had the pleasure to meet. My original estimations of what life would be like here have long ago been replaced by a deep appreciation for this special place, and I feel honored to have been so accepted by this community. When asked why I came to Costa Rica, I used to reply "Los Angeles", my sarcastic yet serious way of recognizing that my life here, and the values of the people I am blessed to call my neighbors, bears almost no resemblance to my previous life in the metropolis.
Despite the high level of toxicity in the food, water, and air of the city I used to call home, I have enjoyed excellent health, which has only improved since coming to Costa Rica. Thus my great surprise when 2 weeks ago I found myself contemplating a visit to the hospital, and possibly a subsequent surgery. I had very little idea what to expect, and with just decent Spanish, was intimidated by the prospect of submitting myself to an unknown medical process. The love I have for the people and culture of Costa Rica had yet to extend to its hospitals, yet I was guardedly optimistic that this country which so prides itself on caring for its people would take care of me at the time I most needed help.
Upon returning home post-surgery, I was enveloped with care from family, friends, neighbors and people I barely know, all wishing me well and letting me know they were here to help me in any way they could. After a couple days I was feeling strong enough to write, and shared the message that follows below with my social network on Facebook. As several people appreciated the perspective and insight on the system and process, I accepted an invitation to share my experience with this newspaper, as a minute, yet symbolic gesture of my deep appreciation for Costa Rica.
The Facebook post
Thank you so much to everyone who has been connecting to wish me a quick recovery from the recent surgery to remove my appendix.
I wanted to take a moment to share a little about the experience, and to let everyone know how I’m doing.
Overall I’m doing great considering. The surgery went smoothly and my body has been getting noticeably better every day since. I’m still mostly in bed recovering, giving my body the time it needs to repair and provide a strong foundation for my normal activities.
The last week has been quite a blur, starting last Saturday when I started having intense discomfort in my abdomen. The pain was similar to a bad cramp, but more severe, and it wouldn’t go away with stretching or pressing. Though very uncomfortable, I didn’t feel it was a medical problem until Sunday night when I had some of the worst pain of my life.
When I woke on Monday it was increasingly clear I had to do something, and couldn’t just hope for this to resolve itself with rest. This was a challenging realization for me since I don’t take medicine or go to hospitals, choosing instead to let my body figure out how to handle whatever comes up. This approach has so far worked great for me, I believe resulting in a strong immune system and relative indifference to the various sicknesses that come around. This time however felt different; the pain was incredible, and in researching possible causes, though I found lots of possible trivial causes, appendicitis was coming up a lot. I finally decided I had to at least rule out the appendix before I could safely relax and wait to get better.
Rather than go to a Doctor, I decided to go directly to get an ultrasound. The technician confirmed an enflamed appendix and suggested emergency surgery to remove it before it ruptured.
I considered whether it would be best to go to a private clinic or the public hospital, finally deciding that the hospital seemed a sound choice for such a surgery since they probably do these procedures all the time, and the operation is relatively simple.
The hospital was a bit intimidating; large entry rooms full of sick people, long lines to many windows, and not much signage or indication how to proceed. This was one of the several times through the week I was deeply grateful to have HappE’s help, in this case because navigating mazes while folded in half is pretty challenging. Fortunately the staff everywhere was very helpful and repeatedly helped us find the area/hallway/window/nook we needed as we progressed from the first check-in to finally wheeling into surgery. This process took 2-3 hours, sped up somewhat since appendicitis ranks highly on their triage priorities. Though this felt like a long time, I sensed there was something pretty efficient happening unseen, supporting the hospital team in handling the roughly 200 people in the various waiting rooms.
I finally met the surgeon, who after a brief exam confirmed the technician’s diagnosis and suggested an operation that night to remove the appendix. I agreed, got dressed for surgery, got wheeled in, and within minutes was falling unconscious from the anesthesia.
Though I had moments of awareness in the recovery room, I basically woke up in a hospital room a couple hours later. The care was excellent, everything was clean and modern. However groups of caregivers would mob in every 2 hours throughout the day and night, turn on all the lights, and would speak loudly to each other about various patient’s conditions. This practice, coupled with the standard noises of sharing a room with 7 people, bordering a loud hallway, made it a very hard place to sleep, so I was extra eager to head home to complete the recovery.
I think they would normally have kept me there 3-5 days, however the Doctor was sensitive to my request to recover somewhere more peaceful, and I think he was encouraged that I had repeatedly denied the pain medications throughout the 2nd day. I was in plenty of pain, but I believe it is better to sense the pain, accept it, and see what I need to learn from it, rather than covering up my body’s signals.
So about 40 hours after wheeling in, with the help of my super-bestie I hobbled out.
Overall the hospital was a positive experience, greatly improved since I speak reasonable Spanish and had a friend’s help to navigate the process. The architecture, lighting, and process could all be pretty intimidating for those used to N. American hospitals, however the medical care was very good, and the cost (about $4,000 with no insurance) is roughly 15-25% of the same procedure up north. And even though I didn’t have the ability to pay for the procedure on the spot, they helped me anyway, because their mission is to care for people, not to make a profit.
So now I have been in bed for the last several days, taking it easy and healing steadily. I still have a fair amount of pain, but it has diminished greatly. I’m still pretty dazed from the anesthesia and the antibiotics, but this is pretty normal and will pass over the days and weeks to come.
For one who likes to stay busy and work most of the time it is challenging to rest for so long. However I know if I want a strong foundation to support my normal activities, this is the time to be still. I’m enjoying lots of coconut water, fresh fruit, and simple delicious veggie dishes. Lots of time to read, write, and watch documentaries. Some designing too, but mostly too loopy to do a good job, so trying to not strategize too much right now. I sense another 3-4 days of rest will have me up and ready to go again. And a week or two from now, I might not even remember this crazy dream and sudden ‘stabbing’.
Thank you again to everyone who has been so supportive, your kind words and consideration are very much appreciated. And thank you so much HappE, your love and care this week turned what could have been a grueling recovery into a quasi-vacation.
As I write this, about a week and a half has passed since sharing the Facebook post. The pain is gone, and most of the mental fog from the anesthesia and antibiotics has lifted. While recuperating I learned a lot about how to build strong digestive health, and am now excited to adjust my diet, expecting to have even more energy, clarity and strength upon my return to my normal life, minus one appendix.
My appreciation for this country continues to grow, now adding gratitude for the high-quality affordable health support, that I hopefully won’t need again for a good long time.
I’m now eager to get back to my work creating a regenerative economy and empowering Costa Rica’s sustainability leaders through our projects at Upward Spirals. If you are curious to learn about or want to support our work creating tools, guides, social benefit programs, and regenerative business plans to create a sustainable society, I invite you to check out the Diamante Solution Center, the Sustainable Living Expedition, Community Days, the Costa Rica Learning Calendar, and the Organic Directory.
Eric Baudry Sustainability Strategist and Co-Founder of Upward Spirals Executive Director of the Diamante Solution Center
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