I´ve had some fascinating moments in Chile. But my most surprising adventure by far was my trip to the emergency room at Santa Maria Hospital.
About four years ago, I was “diagnosed” with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A common condition that affects the digestive system. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and change in bowel movements. In addition to these, I experience the less common symptoms of lethargy, headaches, nausea, and heartburn. When I consulted my doctor, I was hoping to get a quick and fixable diagnosis of my problem. But there is no exact test for IBS and after countless testing and scans my labs were normal.
After months of failed treatments, I had difficulty completing daily tasks due to pain and discomfort. I was losing hope and felt defeated by all my unanswered questions. Although I consulted doctors, who prescribed more meds and friends offered me advice, I felt alone and misunderstood. In the midst of my hurt, I turned to my relationship with God. I found peace and hope in Him. I asked for healing and although I didn’t receive it, he taught me to wrestle with my faith. These trials, strengthened by relationship with God and began a passion for accessible health.
With this mindset, I hoped to learn about the role of social work in healthcare during my time in Chile. I didn’t anticipate however, I would learn from first-hand experience.
My symptoms started a few weeks after I arrived. The most consistent were dizziness and fatigue. IES provided a list of recommended clinics from past students. With the help of my coordinators, I scheduled an online consultation with an English-speaking doctor from a local clinic. My diagnosis: vertigo and a sinus infection. The doctor prescribed a few meds and told me to rest. In the following few days, I felt stronger but the symptoms didn’t disappear.
About a month later, I got food poisoning after trying “Curanto,” a traditional cooking style from the island of Chiloe. My friends and I devoured delicious seafood broth filled with oysters, clams, pork, longaniza, potatoes, and Chapaleles (potato bread). However, the mixture of seafood and meat didn’t sit well in my stomach. I spent a weekend cooped up in my room.
Unfortunately, my body was slow to recover and I was still experiencing my original symptoms. So I made another doctor’s appointment. This time, in person at Clinica Manuel Montt. The night before, I did some research in Spanish on my symptoms. My vocabulary had increased immensely since my arrival but medical terminology felt like a whole other language. Thankfully, my student coordinator accompanied me to help translate when needed. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered the clinic. It was similar to hospitals in the US. The floors were organized by specialists and treatments. Each had its own receptionists and waiting area. Nurses and doctors rushed around in their scrubs and masks. Apart from the language difference, I felt as if I were at another hospital back home. Although I was comfortable with my surroundings, the atmosphere was distinct. The biggest difference I observed was the practice of familiarity and affection. For example, I had gotten used to the greeting in Chile, a kiss on the cheek, and a hug. I found it quite comforting actually. But I have to admit, it was a bit strange to greet my doctor in this way. Another transition was the use of endearing terms. My coordinators referred to me as “Mija” (Darling), “Mi Amor” (My love), “Linda” (Beauty), and “Preciosa” (Cherished/Precious). To my surprise, I encountered the same warmth with my nurses and doctors. To this extent, my treatment felt more personal. Their affection made me feel like a priority rather than just another patient. In addition to their comforting reception, each doctor shared their contact via email or Whatsapp (the most popular communication platform in Chile). At first, I didn’t understand the sincerity of this gesture till a later appointment. My doctor scolded me for waiting to see her rather than calling her the day my symptoms worsened. Likewise, I received regular texts from her checking up on my condition. The follow-through and relationship built by each medic in Chile were impressive.
Another difference was the system and process of care. Even though every clinic I visited had computers, my doctors wrote their notes on paper. Rather than the doctor calling in an online prescription, I was handed a stack of papers with dosages. It was my responsibility to find an available pharmacy with my prescription.
In addition to medications, my doctor ordered a few medical tests. The most exciting was an endoscopy. It was my first time getting one and I was a bit nervous about going under. But when I came to, I didn’t remember a thing. Apparently, they had been unable to complete the endoscopy because the food was still in my digestive tract. Before they stopped, however, the gastrologist took a sample and discovered Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterial infection of the stomach. The bacteria is common, present in about 60% of the world and rarely produces negative symptoms. The infection is fairly easy to treat but requires some heavy duty antibiotics.
That weekend I began the treatment. The day after my first dosage, I felt drained and spent the day in bed. I was hopeful to regain my strength quickly but it was just the opposite. I woke before the sun the next morning and rushed to the bathroom. Waves of hot and cold washed over me. Spells of dizziness brought me to the floor. After a few moments, I hauled myself up to the mirror and let out a terrified gasp. My face was puffy and red. There was a faint hint of color in my eyes, but was that just from sleep? I questioned. I was shaking and my body began to tingle. I couldn’t tell, was it sickness, adrenaline, or panic? I did the only logical thing; I called my mom 5,000 miles away. Of course, she answered and at the sound of her voice I broke down crying.
“Mom I’m scared.” My mind and heart raced. Was it the medicine or panic that was making it hard to breathe? I was hysterical and in shock. “God is with me.” This time I cried out in desperation. “Please dear God, I’m so scared”
By now I had moved to the kitchen floor. I was starting to lose consciousness and my mom urged me to seek local help. After a brief conversation on the IES emergency phone I redialed my mom to let her know my student advisor and an ambulance were on their way. Thankfully, a friend from my dorm came to sit with me as well and I was comforted by her presence. About 10 minutes later my coordinator arrived and advised we take an Uber instead. In Chile, ambulances are infamous for being delayed and you have a better chance of getting to the hospital in a timely manner by taxi.
Once we arrived at La Clinica Santa Maria, I had just enough strength to walk inside. It was still early in the morning and there were only two other patients in the waiting room. Within 30 minutes we were taken to an observation room. The doctor diagnosed a sever allergic reaction. I was given an antihistamine injection and an IV for fluids. The antihistamines worked quickly. My body was exhausted but still fighting and the worst was over. With the help of my coordinator, I made it home safely and spent the next few days recuperating in my dorm.
After my visit to the ER, I had a few more doctor’s appointments. Along with changes to my diet and daily routine, I reflected on my emotional state. I also turned to my faith. Once again, “God is with me.” Not only did I ask Him for healing, but I also rested in His presence. Being sick so far from home was challenging and at times scary. But I found comfort in the Father. In other ways, my illness in another country has been a blessing. In all the years of doctor visits in the US, I was unable to get certain medical tests due to the cost. But in Chile, the access and quality of care I experienced were more cost-effective and felt more personalized. With that being said, I am a foreign citizen in Chile and have the privilege of private care and insurance. Not all Chileans have the same access and I learned about the inequalities they face. Much like in the US, quality medical care is expensive and not equally accessible to all. The opportunity to gain personal experience with these issues motivates me to further investigate global social work. In addition, I have insight into concepts we discuss in my social work classes and an understanding I could never get from a textbook.
I am still recovering, but I have learned a lot about myself and how to advocate for my needs. As I mentioned, my coordinators were very supportive and helpful throughout the whole process. I also received lots of prayers and words of encouragement. I am grateful for the support of loved ones and for this platform to share my experience and observations.