The pain started somewhere low in my throat. My breathing became shallow as the pain slowly oozed like black molasses across my chest and down my left arm.
My first thought was: “OK, this isn’t in our Belize Playbook.”
Somewhere in the dim recesses I knew these symptoms were a checklist for something, warning signs, I just didn’t want to acknowledge it. Besides I was on my bicycle, far south of home.
So I kept pedaling. Slower than before. My left arm started feeling on the useless side and dropped from its grip on the handlebar. And when the pain reached a level I refer to as disturbing, I stopped, sat down and stared at the crystalline blue-green sea.
I have always been a fan of irony but I found nothing amusing in the idea of retiring to this beautiful Ambergris Caye, only to drop over inches from the sea of a heart attack.
The pain subsided. I got on my bike and pedaled home. Very slowly.
Naturally it all went away – even the anxiety – as I rested on the bed.
And naturally it all came back the next time I got on the bike. The difference this time is that Rose and our friend Karen Kelly, a surgical nurse, were along for the Sunday ride. We’d all done yoga at Ak’Bol and were headed north for a late breakfast.
Something about me clutching my chest in discomfort in front of the Capricorn Resort signaled that particular beachfront restaurant as a good place as any to stop. Rose and Karen peppered me with questions and distressed looks as my body quickly flipped back to normal.
“Just a thing,” I assured them.
No, bless their hearts. I didn’t assure them at all.
By the way, If you are up there (three miles north of San Pedro), Capricorn serves one heck of a great breakfast. Every table has a little mini-kiosk on it touting the fact that the little resort is for sale, too. So you can indulge in a side of fantasy along with your eggs and pancakes.
True to her calling, Karen had a blood pressure sleeve in her kit back at the condo and she slapped it on my arm like a set of handcuffs as soon as we walked in the door.
“Do you have any blood pressure medication?” she asked a bit too sternly for someone who should be on vacation.
“Why yes,” I replied. “I have two.”
“Do you take them?”
“Not in the last couple of years,” I replied, throwing in my best “chastened and humble” look.
I knew what was coming.
“Well, start taking them. Now!”
There it was.
Every time some doctor prescribes meds for cholesterol or blood pressure I eventually screw the cap on and vow to myself that I shall beat this curse fair and square, and naturally, with lots of exercise, healthy diet, meditation and good clean living.
It worked pretty well when I was running lots of marathons and half-marathons. Not so well in the (insert a large number) years since.
So, I started back on the meds. Rose and Karen insisted that I get to a doctor and get the pipes checked out.
Which I did.
After our other friends, Brian Connors and Susan Shors, arrived from San Francisco.
The morning after Brian and Susan were settled in at Ramon’s Resort Village and Karen and Rose were off doing yoga somewhere, I quietly slipped into the Dr. Otto Rodriguez San Pedro PolyClinic II and took a seat.
One absurdly high blood pressure reading later and a consultation with Dr. Harrison and I was up on a gurney with probes being stuck to my body in preparation for an EKG.
Only the machine was broken. So I walked down the street to the private Clinica los Pinos and walked out 30 minutes later with a crisp EKG printout and $50US less in my wallet.
Back at the PolyClinic, Dr. Harrison drew a practiced eye over the rows of squiggles, jotted with the point of her pen here and there, but found nothing extraordinary. Just the same, she ordered up a slate of blood tests and made sure I had access to my daily aspirin. She also echoed Karen: “Get back on that blood pressure medication and drop in every other day for a reading to make sure the meds are still doing their job.”
My next step, she said, is to make an appointment with a cardiologist in Belize City.
Sooner, rather than later.
She wrote up a referral to the cardiologist in Belize City’s busy public facility, The Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. But, she noted, there are private-practice cardiologist in the city from whom I might get an appointment more quickly.
Not bad. Good hard information, some direction and a decent referral in under two hours. I walked over to the receptionist and asked what all this would cost me.
“Nothing,” she said, then nodded toward an old box that looked as if it had been lifted from in front of a plaster statue of a saint in the church. “But we do take donations.” Rose stuffed a bunch of bills into the box. With gratitude.
I had no idea. I mean, just because it is a government clinic, it never occurred to me that a country as small and poor as Belize could provide free basic medical care to all. I thought for sure there would be a sliding scale or a gringo rate.
The PolyClinic has its limits – and next month those will be stretched as the doors are to open 24 hours a day for the first time – but for emergency care and basics, it seems to be a darn good facility. I’ve heard as much from others who have dropped in with broken arms, cuts and fevers and the like. The lines can grow long, the equipment does break down. But good people can compensate and I have had a run of good people there.
Now I’m left wondering if there is a support group that raises funds for the clinic. It could use a paint job. And the EKG machine is broken. So, too, apparently is a lot of the equipment used to analyze blood samples, as the lab could only do two of the 10 requested by Dr. Johnson.
We have fund-raisers for the Humane Society, Red Cross, barrier beach and myriad worthy causes. I don’t recall one for the PolyClinic.