Live report: Health care in Mexico versus the U.S.

The quality and cost of healthcare in Mexico compared to the U.S. is one of those conversation topics among expats that is so contentious, yet shopworn, just the mere mention of it makes me feel like my head is going to explode.

Heated opinions range from “Mexico has the best!—not merely better, or comparable, folks—healthcare system in the world. 

But Ed Clancy, former U.S. consular agent in San Miguel,  after spending a night at the emergency room of the local De La Fé Hospital declared that he facilities and medical care were so abysmal that he “wouldn’t take his cat there.”

The only other comparably hellacious subject nowadays has to be President Trump’s policies and his hair, as in, “what color is it, exactly, and where do all those polyurethaned swirls originate and end? How do they remain in place? Is that a result of his placid regimen of extended free “executive time” at the White House, followed by weekend tee times at Mar-a-Lago, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, and 150 tweets in between?

Then three weeks ago, and much to my chagrin, I was thrown off by a bucking horse, and had a chance to sample the quality and costs of the  two medical systems—in real time.

I came away pleasantly surprised, stunned actually. I am happy to report that not only am I back on the mend, but also relieved that if an emergency arose with Stew or myself, we would receive adequate care here.

The only thing missing in my recovery curve now is perhaps some counseling to help tide me over the rage I still feel about being involved in this accident, for which liquor was largely to blame, and my friends’ inability to accept responsibility for their boozing and accompanying debacle.

Take it from me, nothing will piss you off more thoroughly that diligently staying sober for 35-some years and then being at the receiving end of a quite serious mishap, as the result of someone else’s boozing.

The accident took place ten or 15 miles outside of town, where we were to ride a team of horses to the top of a nearby mountain, there to spend the night. The next day, as I tried to mount the horse, it got spooked and reared up, sending me and the saddle—which wasn’t properly buckled—flying into the air before we both hit the ground.

The team of “cowboys” in charge of this U.S. $300 per-person outing-cum-boondoggle stood there stupefied, some clutching their beer cans, I assume trying to soothe the hangover resulting from the fireside tequila-and-mezcal sousing the night before. Thank God, or thank Stew, for his screaming for someone to help him off the horse he was already on, so he could come and help me.

I don’t remember much of what happened, which caused Stew to keep asking if I’d hit my head on a rock.

So, off we went on a friend’s truck driven by Stew, to the emergency room of a brand-new private hospital, about eight miles from our ranch, that is part of a Mexican hospital chain called MAC.

I was attended by one Dr. Ricardo Aguirre, a forty-something, bearded guy whom I had seen before and who has to be one of the most caring, competent ER doctors around.

Accident-prone gringo oldsters in San Miguel, turn up your hearing aids and listen: Any emergency, call this guy at MAC. In his previous life he was a pediatrician, which might explain his knack for  dealing with hysterical human beings, even old ones.

In about one hour, a traumatologist appeared on the scene, an internist and a crew of nurses who hooked me up to an IV and shoved one of those oxygen-blowing tubes up my nose. 

If there’s any fault to Aguirre’s soothing bedside manner was his disconcerting habit of prefacing his diagnoses, with “There’s some bad news and some good news—in that order.

Aguirre: “Some bad news, you hurt a couple vertebrae.”

Me: “Oh shit.”

Aguirre: “Good news, there are no fractures.”

Me: That’s good.

Aguirre: “Except for one of your ribs.”

Me: “Oh shit.”

Aguirre: “And worse news, it looks like it punctured your right lung.”

Me: “Oh, double shit. Please, no more news reports, eh?”

MAC Hospital San Miguel. Brand-new and waiting for customers.

Some nurses loaded me onto another gurney and wheeled me up to my oversized hospital room on the second floor.

Lying on a hospital bed, with IVs planted on my left hand felt creepy: I had never been hospitalized and it was as if I had landed on a asteroid, far, far away. Stew loitered about for a couple of hours and then announced he had to go eat, a crucial human function, particularly for Stew.

I was left with a TV monitor that only carried Netflix, and which allowed me to binge-watch all nine gory episodes of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” starring Ricky Martin and Penélope Cruz, the latter a bleached blonde—and possibly the worst TV fare imaginable when you’re lying on a hospital bed.

The young male and female nurses seemed so attentive it felt as if I were in the middle of an audition for a new reality show called Jewish Mother of the Year. Chicken soup? Sure. More dessert? Coming right up. Honey for your cough (at midnight)? Let me go check.

Coffee? Sorry, no coffee, so Stew brought me some from the cafeteria. Worst moment was when I had to summon the nurse so he could help me go take a pee because my back pain had left me unable to move.

Close to midnight on the first day, a tiny woman came in, introduced herself as an internist, and explained the business with my lung. Air escaping from the lung had formed a bubble above the lung, and the resulting pressure was keeping me from breathing properly. She would have to insert a catheter in my chest to let out the trapped air.

Edgar, the young and affable technician who took so many x-rays I asked him if I was going to be left glowing in the dark, kept talking about my punctured lung as if it were a flat tire (“está como una llanta ponchada”) that wouldn’t completely inflate.

After the second day I was sent home, feeling woozy, and bruised all over, including a black-and-blue mark the size of a dinner plate over my right hip, where I’d landed off the horse.

Everyone who’s heard this sorry story, both the doctors at MAC Hospital, and friends who are experienced riders, have reassured me that I was super lucky not have broken my neck, hit my head or kicked by the frantic horse.

However, not entirely comfortable with the diagnosis or the treatment I’d received in Mexico, Stew and I decided to look for a second opinion back in the U.S.

It was not an irrational reaction: We’ve both experienced some really incompetent medical care here, including a botched surgery by a Teutonic-sounding quack in Querétaro that left Stew’s right hand impaired.

So he and I quickly arranged for a second opinion and not from anywhere, mind you, but from the Cleveland Clinic’s new hospital in Weston, Fla., 45 minutes west of Ft. Lauderdale.

The Cleveland Clinic is a world-renowned hospital, up in the rarified stratosphere of medical care in the U.S., alongside The Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson Hospital in Houston.

Cleveland Clinic is set to open a facility in London in 2021, and I suspect one in Mars in preparation for the upcoming space jaunts by Richard Branson’s Virgin Intergalactic.

We certainly weren’t dissatisfied with the treatment by Dr. Aguirre and his team at MAC.

Or the cost (all in U.S. dollars): Two days at the hospital, including all nursing care, multiple x-rays ($20 each), surgery, enchiladas for breakfast and all-you-can-stand Netflix, $1686.  A chest/spinal MRI at another hospital: $150. Additional doctors’ fees: $525.

We were just nervous.

Cleveland Clinic, Florida branch (partial view)
Come on in, and don’t forget your Medicare card. 

 We have no idea how much the visits to the Cleveland Clinic cost, because they were paid by that nefarious socialist plot called Medicare. But I imagine the bills must have been at least ten times what they were in Mexico.

The list price to for an epidural injection Stew received at a hospital in San Antonio recently was $11,000, though Medicare paid only a fraction of that.

Most surprising was that the consultation, diagnosis, reading of the x-rays and MRI’s, and description by the specialist of how the Cleveland Clinic would have handled the emergency—except for the cost—was identical to what I received in Mexico. 

Most pleasing of all were the parting words of the doctor at the Cleveland Clinic and his assistant: “You’re damned lucky.”

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