Yet another medical saga: Saved by my angels in Merida

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This is a ponderous blog post for many. I will try to leven it with beautiful artsy pictures from Merida, taken when I first went for a medical consultation in December. This, for example is one of the many many churches in Merida. I don't know which they have more of, churches or medical facilities. Every public square seems graced with a church.
This is a ponderous blog post for many. I will try to leven it with beautiful artsy pictures from Merida, taken when I first went for a medical consultation in December. This, for example is one of the many many churches in Merida. I don’t know which they have more of, churches or medical facilities. Every public square seems graced with a church.

Hello. Miss me?

So sorry. I have checked out — in a number of ways — and the Bound for Belize blog has fallen by the wayside.

Then I popped back up the other day with that number on violence and murder in Belize and I know it felt more like a hard slap than a cheery wave “hello” to many.

Sorry about that.

The trouble with this blog is that I write about what moves me, what’s on my mind. Since I am beholden to no advertiser or revenue stream or reader, it comes and goes as I am moved most — or least.

I hope you enjoyed my friend Jeff Drew’s guest post on spending the day with Jose/Salva, a solitary fishermen at sea in his kayak. I see Jose paddle out nearly every day in fair weather and foul. I find him incredibly brave and determined. Thank you Jeff, for sharing your story.

A government building on Merida's Grand Plaza. It is situated directly opposite a cathedral -- and don't you think that is freighted with symbolism? Merida is magical at night, lights, music and art are everywhere.
A government building on Merida’s Grand Plaza. It is situated directly opposite a cathedral — and don’t you think that is freighted with symbolism? Merida is magical at night, lights, music and art are everywhere.

I once asked Jose why he goes out every day to fish and he laughed. “If I had to stay in town,” he replied, “I would go crazy.”

Fair enough.

Well, as some of you may know — or may have surmised — I’ve been sick.

Yet again.

Last year started with a stent implant to unclog a very clogged artery. That went well, if rather more expensively than I had hoped. And I am proud to say the operation was done here in Belize by a talented cardiologist.

Then in May I had a mysterious case of internal bleeding that sent me to the public national hospital in Belize City,  Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, on a holiday weekend. It is an experience I shall cherish and never want to repeat again. The bleeding was stopped; the reason for it was never discovered.

Then, at the end of 2015, I developed a serious prostate problem. I spent a couple of days in a private clinic in Belize City where the urologist made several observations: 1. It may need to be removed. 2. It may be cancerous. 3. Get it done in Merida, Mexico, not here in Belize.

I took the doctor’s advice.

In one park in Merida a brass orchestra was playing beautiful music, for all to enjoy.
In one park in Merida a brass orchestra was playing beautiful music, for all to enjoy.

I booked a flight to Merida, right after booking a consultation with a urologist.

This was all made possible for two huge reasons: 1. My good friends Dennis and Tamara Rossi now live in Merida. 2. An amazing medical “concierge” named Teresita who serves as a guardian angel between the vast and sprawling Merida medical community and terribly confused and stressed medical tourists. Like me.

Teresita booked my appointments, drove me to them, translated, assisted with pharmacy needs and generally made sure the who experience went down without a hitch. She has been doing this for Belizeans for 29 years.

This is the courtyard behind the English Library in Merida. Besides providing -- obviously -- English language books for expats, the library is a social gathering place for all.
This is the courtyard behind the English Library in Merida. Besides providing — obviously — English language books for expats, the library is a social gathering place for all.

Teresita, a Belizean by birth and a nurse by training,  has never charged for this service. She leaves it up to you to decide the value of her efforts. 

Meanwhile, Dennis and Tamara, and Tam’s mom, Bobbi, opened up their house to me with a level of generosity that still staggers me today. (I displaced Bobbi from her beautiful casita at the back of the compound and she was the most lovely and gracious person imaginable.)

My urologist, who is also an oncologist, recommended prostate removal. “We could do a biopsy now,” he said, “and if there is cancer we would have to remove it anyway. As it is, it should be removed regardless.”

As The Donald would say, “It’s huuuuuge!” (Sorry.)

Like music, art is to be found everywhere in Merida. I just loved the whimsy in this piece in a covered walkway between the cathedral and a huge commerce building.
Like music, art is to be found everywhere in Merida. I just loved the whimsy in this piece in a covered walkway between the cathedral and a huge commerce building.

This was my second time around with prostate problems in three years.  I was over it.

I returned to Merida several weeks later for the operation.

This time I took the water taxi from the lagoon-side of San Pedro to Chetumal, Mexico, (90 minutes) and picked up the ADO bus to Merida (6 hours). I would go that route again in a heartbeat.  (There are two water taxis to Chetumal and they alternate days.) Sorry, Tropic Air, I love your planes but I just can’t always afford them.

I won’t belabor you with the details, but with Teresita watching over me, the operation and five days recovery in the hospital went off extremely well.

OK, one anecdote to illustrate the indispensability of Teresita.

Even the simplest thing, like building addresses and markers, have a certain elegance in Merida.
Even the simplest thing, like building addresses and markers, have a certain elegance in Merida.

The ADO bus arrived around 7 p.m. in Merida and my first instructions were to head immediately to the hospital for blood tests. (I fasted the whole trip for those tests.) I raced from the bus to the first cab and pointed the driver toward the hospital. At the blood lab I ran into an insurmountable language barrier. It seemed like they wanted 18 hours of fasting instead of my eight.

I was beside myself. The operation was set for 7 a.m. the next day and everything hinged on the blood test results.

In my deepest despair I heard a voice behind me. “Mr. Hawkins?” It was Teresita.

Unbeknownst to me, she had come to the bus terminal to pick me up, saw me jump into the cab and chased us to the hospital.

Teresita quickly cleared up the misunderstanding. The blood samples were drawn and then she drove me to the little B&B where I was to stay that first night. Bright and early the next morning, she drove me to the hospital and stayed by my side until I was wheeled into surgery.

And of course, she was there to greet me when I came out.

So, operation and hospital stay — very very good. Couldn’t have asked for better care.

No, literally. I couldn’t have asked for better care.

Nobody spoke English. And my Spanish is horribly deficient.

I was in a Mexican hospital, not a medical tourism facility. We muddled through with sign language and sharing of translations, word by word.

Like a Pavlovian dog, I quickly learned that “dolor” (pain) yielded pain killers. “Mucho dolor” yielded even more. Mostly though, Teresita stopped by periodically to smooth the path between our two languages.

When it came time to leave the hospital, Teresita gathered up my billing and two inches of documentation. She cross-referenced every charge against my hospital account number to ensure the accuracy of it all. She also negotiated a reduction in the surgeon’s fee because I had to stay an extra day in the hospital.

Now, health care should never be approached with a bargain-hunter’s mentality. You want the best care, not the cheapest. That said, surgery, biopsy (clean) and hospital stay with all medical supplies and medications, came to a grand total of $4,100 USD. I think that is less than many insurance deductibles in the U.S.

What can not be calculated is the five days I spent recuperating with Dennis, Tamara and Bobbi. They gave me the space to be my miserable self (and I was miserable) and yet insisted that I not starve myself to death. By the end, i was gingerly taking afternoon walks with them. and sharing meals.

But seriously? I was no fun for anybody.

Now, at home, recovery is maddeningly slow but my own angel, Rose, has patiently and lovingly paved the way with nurturing meals, appropriate concern and encouragement.

Part of an exhibit of local artists in a museum in the historic Colonial center of Merida. Again: churches, medical facilities, museums -- Merida has all three in abundance. (OK, I'm out of pictures. I hope you can get through the rest of this post on words alone!)
Part of an exhibit of local artists in a museum in the historic Colonial center of Merida. Again: churches, medical facilities, museums — Merida has all three in abundance. (OK, I’m out of pictures. I hope you can get through the rest of this post on words alone!)

The question that often comes up is, “Hey Bob, you’re 65 and now on Medicare why didn’t you have this done in the U.S.?”

Here’s my thinking — and jump in if you think I am wrong: I have been two years in Belize. I have no doctor back home and no residential base from which to operate. To get it done I would first need to secure a general practitioner who would run a series of tests and then, pending results, recommend me to a urology specialist with whom I may, or may not, get an appointment. He or she would then run more tests and maybe, with the passage of time, an operation would be scheduled. Then I would need to find a place to recover, post-hospital. Then there are the flights to and from Belize, the need for transportation in the states, room and board.

In my head it adds up to a logistical and financial nightmare. Assuming I could find a doctor who still takes Medicare patients.

Merida, by the way, is home to 99 hospitals and specialty clinics, including one hospital just for South Koreans. It’s doctors are among the finest anywhere. My own is the head of oncology at one of the major hospitals and has his own private surgical urology practice. His competence and credentials were never in doubt.

My mental state through all this, has been a whole other thing. I hate being sick at my age. I hate deferring the joy I’m supposed to be experiencing in retirement. I hate burdening Rose and friends with my infirmity. I hate the feelings of helplessness and mortality that define me. I am surrounded by beauty and life on a lovely tropical island and I struggle to appreciate it.

Oh, I’m getting better, stronger. I’m healing slowly and my outlook is improving. During a spell this last week when my medications ran out I was able to taste my first beer in more than two months. And my first cup of coffee!

Maybe that’s why I am running on and on right now: Caffeine!

I apologize. But so many of you have asked me where I went to (in a literary sense). I just thought you should know.

I’m doing fine, getting better and pretty soon hope to once again experience the joys and challenges of living here in Belize — and tell you all about them.

Meanwhile thanks for your well wishes, concerns and prayers. They all sustain me and I am most grateful.

And I promise you, no pictures of the operation.

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46 thoughts on “Yet another medical saga: Saved by my angels in Merida

    ontheelbow said:
    February 20, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    John & I are so grateful you’ve been able to get through this with the help of your friends. Thank goodness Rose will see you through the home stretch!
    Xxoo Janine
    P.S. Thanks for not posting photos! 😖

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 20, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      Hi Janine! Thanks so much for writing. I think of you and John (and all Scotts and Smiths) often. Hope you are all well and enjoying life.

      Like

    kristina nadreau said:
    February 20, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing thiis experience. As we age, all of us are having or are going to have health care needs. Wishing you a complete and sppeedy recovery.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 20, 2016 at 8:17 pm

      Thanks, Kristina. I guess the best lesson is to have a decent plan for the times when we do need medical help. I got very lucky by have caring and generous friends who were in a position to help. I can’t imagine what my story would be like without them.

      Like

    Lynn said:
    February 20, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Bob, I’m SO glad it all went so well for you!! Sorry for the illness, but glad that you’re on the mend!!

    Like

    Susan said:
    February 20, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Well darn, it’s the photos of bad prostrate I was looking forward to the most! LOL, but seriously, SO SO SO glad you are OK and that the biopsy was clear. You and Rose are constantly in my prayers and even more so when I hadn’t seen a post in over two weeks. The blank screen spoke volumes to me. Hope to see you next week. We leave for Belize in 7 hours!

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 20, 2016 at 8:14 pm

      Bravo! Have an enjoyable trip in. The weather today is spectacular!

      Like

    Mike said:
    February 20, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Enjoyed meeting you with Chunky and Ruthy at Coral Bay in Jan. Nice to get a read on health care options in Belize. That’s always been a concern of mine. Enjoyed your article, always looking forward to more!

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 20, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      Thanks, Mike. Likewise on meeting you. Chunky and Ruthie know only the best people!

      Like

    Larry Lewis said:
    February 20, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Getting better soon. We enjoy the posts.

    Like

    gglavis said:
    February 20, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    Hi Bob. Thank you for sharing your story. We are so glad you are recovering and well. And you and Rose will be in our thoughts and prayers. We send many hugs!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 5:04 am

      Love your hugs and prayers! Thank you, Greta! Love to you and Jeff!

      Like

    tacogirl said:
    February 21, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Heard noting but good about Teresita. Glad you are on the mend and feeling better.

    Like

    Jane said:
    February 21, 2016 at 6:13 am

    Bob, sharing your medical experience has meant so much to others of us who think about that “what would I do if…?” question so often. Glad you’re back and on the mend. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 8:11 am

      Thanks, Jane. I’m learning that “What would I do if ….” is one of the most important questions an expat can ask for a multitude of situations. Never thought far into the future and it will cost me dearly, that I’m sure of. One can stay “in the moment” yet still cast an eye down the road and prepare for what is around the next corner.

      Like

    Bill Graham said:
    February 21, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Thanks for sharing Robert, I always enjoy your writing, and yes, that you write about what inspires you always comes through. I am glad you are recovering and finding inspiration again. All the best with that process and keep up the good work, I (and many others, I’m sure) appreciate what you do.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 8:08 am

      Thanks, Bill. Likewise, your billdoesbelize.com offers valuable insights. Very much appreciated. Are you still in San Pedro? Love to grab a coffee sometime!

      Like

    Karley York said:
    February 21, 2016 at 7:17 am

    Goodness Gracious.
    Nice to know you are healing.
    That is quite a lot.
    It is comforting to know your personal Angel Rose is by your side as usual.
    Stay Strong.
    This planet needs you 🙂

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 8:03 am

      York! Good to hear from you. Thanks. Yes, I’ve stretched my Angel Rose credits to the maximum limits. Now I need to start giving back.

      Like

    Joan said:
    February 21, 2016 at 7:21 am

    We are so happy to hear you are doing better. As for you query … I will share a quick story, in an attempt to support your choice. We had a friend of our son living with us for a few years (that’s a long story and not necessary to this one) I purchased insurance for him, he is young and it wasn’t terrible expensive. He developed a persistent cough. I called the “primary physician” he had been assigned and never got a return phone call. I drove to the office of the doctor in order to get an appointment, I was told he would be seen in 2-3 months. I took him to a Doc in the Box (he had now added a low grade fever to the persistent cough). I paid the $300 for that visit (because they didn’t take his insurance) then went to the pharmacy to fill the 4 prescriptions he needed (they did take his insurance so that was a relief). Long story short … government mandated insurance or medicare does not assure you are going to get care, or that it is going to be cheap or quick. It sounds to me, with the help of Teresita, you had a much better experience in Merida than you would have had in the US.

    Keep getting better … and we will track you down in June … with beer!!!

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 8:00 am

      Looking forward to that beer! Thanks for sharing your story, Joan. Back when I worked for the newspaper and had first rate insurance coverage, my medical experiences (and those of my family) were nearly all extraordinarily happy experiences. It is brutal when a company strips away such coverage and cuts you adrift. I’ve never quite recovered from that. I am happy that I can find very good care here on the island for basic needs and have access to places like Merida for more-involved care, and even certain clinics in Belize City. I need to build up a medical fund for the future, however!

      Like

    woof4treats said:
    February 21, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Taking notes and glad you are getting back to your old(young) self. We have insurance could easily fly back to Houston for complicated free care. Then the cost of lodging/meals/car rental/plane tickets etc. So Merida would be our first choice. My Spanish is limited to Aqua, cafe and vodka por favor.

    Liked by 1 person

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 8:02 am

      Add “mucho dolor” — the drugs are amazing…..

      Like

        Emily said:
        February 21, 2016 at 2:34 pm

        Interesting, even though many meds are OTC in Mexico that require an Rx in the US (for example, the Tri-Luma skin cream I bought there for $36 US OTC vs well over $100 and Rx required in the US), I have heard/read that it is quite difficult to get narcotic painkillers there even for the most dire needs. Not so? Maybe when you are actually IN the hospital, it is a different story than as an outpatient. 🙂

        Thank you for sharing your story, Bob, and I’m very glad to hear that you are doing well. Merida is a wonderful city, and I wouldn’t hesitate to get medical care there. Even with Medicare, I am sure you made out better, financially, psychologically, and logistically than you would have in the US. Good choice!

        P.S. Hope you’ll be able to ride your bike again once you’re healed up!

        Like

        robertjhawkins1 responded:
        February 21, 2016 at 2:59 pm

        You may be right, Emily. My only experience with meds in Mexico was through the hospital. There was one popular painkiller that I understood was readily available over the counter. Here in Belize, the pharmacies are remarkably liberal. I bring in the empty packets from year old prescriptions and they simply renew them. Medications at the PolyClinic’s government pharmacy are free, but do require a doctor’s prescription.
        As for Merida, I am totally charmed by the city and its livability for expats.
        I am most anxiously awaiting the day I can do two things: ride my bike and paddle a kayak out to the reef to snorkel. I met my neighbor Gail on her way out to do just that today and I was so tempted to join her. Well, perhaps in a month.

        Like

    Tom Cawthon said:
    February 21, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Glad to know everything went well and that you are recovering nicely. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    Rob Chodowski said:
    February 21, 2016 at 8:56 am

    You’ve really been through medical hell the past year+. Great to hear you are finally on the road to recovery. We’ll be back the end of July and hope to see you & Rose again under better circumstances. Stay healthy & keep on writing.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 11:22 am

      Coming up, the Year of Good Health and Sensible Living!

      Like

    jamie cozby said:
    February 21, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Glad you are on the mend Bob. We recently got to see the woks of Teresita when Rodney traveled to Merida twice for hearing aids. He had the up-most care and the Dr. was super qualified and knowledgeable and the cost of the most modern brand of hearing aids were HALF the cost of what we were quoted in the states. Teresita went above and beyond her call of duty in taking care of him and making sure everything was charged correctly.I feel so grateful that we are able to use Merida & Teresita for our closest major medical facility.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 11:21 am

      Thanks, Jamie. Yeah, I agree, Merida is a good deal and prices in general are really attractive. I got a nice haircut for $2.50 US before I left!

      So I can stop shouting at Rodney??? 🙂

      Like

    Beth Shedden said:
    February 21, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I hope that you are feeling better every day. Say hi to Rose – she is a caring beautiful woman.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 21, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Hi Beth, good to hear from you. I’ll pass on your greeting to Rose.

      Like

    jack g said:
    February 21, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    Dude. i knew you would come through with flying colors. Doctori “mucho dolor”

    Cheers!

    Like

    johnhenryeast said:
    February 22, 2016 at 5:29 am

    Good to ‘hear’ that you are on the road to recovery Bob. Just keep doing what you’re told to do.

    Like

    KathyandMare said:
    February 22, 2016 at 6:29 am

    Wishing you a speedy recovery

    Like

    lifeagain said:
    February 22, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Bob, having You and John East disappear for awhile left me in a a motivational coma. I was without my perpetual carrot on a stick towards my eventual retirement and relocation. I am happy to hear that you are on the mends and hope that you realize there are a lot of people in your life that are rooting for you and a great recovery.

    Get healthy, i see a lot of cold beer in your future coming from me as additional motivation to take care of yourself.

    Donald

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 22, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      You are on, Don! I’m so ready for some cold beers! Thank you!

      Like

    Michael Capps said:
    February 22, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    Prayers for a quick recovery Sir.

    Like

      robertjhawkins1 responded:
      February 22, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      Thanks, Michael. “Quick recovery” are my favorite words right now.

      Like

    Dennis O'Kane said:
    February 29, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Robert, I missed your well-written blog posts. Best wishes for a speedy and full recovery. When you have an opportunity, would you email me please. I would like some contact information for Merida, especially for Ms. Teresita.

    Wishing you well,

    Dennis (from Monkey River)

    Like

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