With no health insurance in Mexico, I walked in off the street, found out my breasts were tumor-free and my cervix looked healthy in less than two hours, for less than $145.
I’ve written about other health needs that prompted me to seek emergency care while living and traveling abroad: likely Chikungunya and parasites in Tulum, Mexico, last year; a UTI in Campeche, Mexico, last month; a nasty allergic reaction to an ant bite on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua several years ago.
This visit was entirely different.
This was my first experience with annual, preventative care in a foreign country.
I was due for my annual gynecological exam and mammogram, but I’m not living in the U.S.
Before I left San Diego, I saw my former gynecologist. She told me she was fed up with the health care system. She was a single doctor in private practice, and no longer had joy left for what she did. The bureaucratic beast swallowed her passion, so she quit and retired a little early.
I’m not saying health care systems in other countries are perfect; I am not saying foreign health systems are fair to all of their own citizens; I’m not saying health care abroad is the sole answer to problems with ours at home.
I am saying this: Fellow Americans, you don’t realize how time consuming and unnecessarily expensive health care is in our country until you try it abroad.
For anyone interested, here is a detailed account of my experience.
My spouse and I got to the clinic in Chetumal (the capital of the State of Quintana Roo) just before 9:30 a.m. I saw an Ob/Gyn after a 10 minute wait. He didn’t know much English, but we managed to communicate. He filled out a work order for a mammogram, and he personally walked me to an adjoining building. At first, the receptionist said I’d have to wait an hour, but then, they magically made room for me right away, so I only had to wait less than 10 minutes.
I had a mammogram and then a sonogram. Both were done by a man, and there was no woman in the room. The technician was courteous and professional. He knew a little English, yet he tried to speak the few words he did know, while I attempted the most basic Spanish. He made both tests as pleasant as they can be.
The mammogram room and the breast machine were clean and bright. To my untrained eye, it looked exactly like the machines I’ve been smooshed in during other annual exams back in the states.
Once several pictures were taken, he took me to another room for a sonogram, just to be sure everything was ‘todo bien’ (everything was cool).
Again, the machine was clean and the room was bright and clean. And again, to my untrained eye, the machine looked the same as in the states.
He said tentatively, things appeared to be normal. Then he asked me to dress and wait as he left the room.
He returned about 15 minutes later, and exclaimed while smiling, partly in English, “Todo bien! We see no tumors. We see nothing strange.”
I was given these results immediately. There was no waiting for a letter in the mail, there was no making another appointment for weeks in advance to have a sonogram done ‘just to be sure.’ Results were immediate. And, before I left, the technician gave me the images in an envelope to take with me, should I want to retain them for my records, or perhaps have another expert give a second opinion. No place in the states has ever done that for me before. (I’m sure I could have gotten images, if I had asked, which I never did.)
Next, I had a gynecological exam, including a Pap smear, back in the doctor’s office after a 15 minute wait. This doctor also was courteous, professional and pleasant. He played opera music during the examination. He showed me implements before using them on me, to make up for the language barrier, I’m guessing.
For the second time while I’m undressed, there was no woman in the room, just me and him – and I felt fine about that. The exam room was clean and bright, which was just off of his main office.
The doctor said my cervix looks healthy, and I’ll get the official Pap test results in 10 days, which is similar to the the wait time in the U.S.
In addition to the technicians and doctor, the receptionists were pleasant as well. Two out of three receptionists spoke no English at alll, but they were kind and patient as I stumbled through a few basic phrases in Spanish, trying to communicate on the most basic level.
We were ready to leave the clinic by about 11:15 a.m. The entire visit and testing and some results – all accomplished in under two hours.
From time to the money: the total cost was just under $143 at this exchange rate. Now, that’s high for here. Additionally, it’s way more than the advertised price on the sign by the main reception area.
One of the receptionists handling the payments, who knew a little English, said in a mix of English and Spanish I was paying more than Mexicans because I am a foreigner, and because I was seen right away. We didn’t mind too much, especially since it was so convenient for us. Otherwise, we’d have to travel back to Chetumal from Mahahual for separate appointments for the doctor and the mammogram. The travel time is about two hours each way.
I had decent health insurance when I was still working an office job. Preventative screenings and exams cost me nothing out-of-pocket, according to the insurance companies. Or did they? I think they actually did cost a lot.
One year, there was ‘something they wanted to take a better look at.’ So I had to schedule a second mammogram, which cost more time away from work, because it had to be scheduled during business hours. It cost me and my employer my time, and my effort to get there – it was a half hour drive from home.
Additionally, there were the health care premiums that were deducted each pay period from my check, on top of the cost my employer had to cover for the plan.
I would venture to say these exams, although supposedly ‘free’, cost way more than $143 when these other factors are taken into account.
Full disclosure – I will have to go back to Chetumal to get those Pap results in 10 days. It will cost me more time than money – it’s only a couple of dollars but it will take about two hours on a colectivo ride and then a taxi to the clinic. Colectivos are passenger vans that act as shared taxis, like minibuses. And another two hours back to Mahahual. That’s ok by me. I have ebooks from the library back in Cleveland, so I’ll just read on the drive. (Side note: this map shows Mahahual in relation to Chetumal, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun, all in the state of Quintana Roo.)
For now, we are settled in Mahahual for a couple of months, where I can relax for a stretch of time without moving around, happy and grateful for the knowledge I have healthy breasts.
We’ve done a lot of travel in three months. Since January, we’ve done northeastern Belize, northern Guatemala, the north central region of Belize and some islands, then back to Mexico on the Caribbean side, and also the Gulf side for Campeche and some sargassum-free beaches. Inside those travels, I also took a three-week trip home to Long Island.
I can’t wait to be lazy on the beach. Eat seafood, drink fresh juice. Jog the malecon, swim laps by the reef. Snorkel in the sea, maybe take a dive. Be kind to people, talk about God with the locals. Enjoy my husband, love every day, because every day counts.
Note: Two years after this was written, Ellen was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. It was caught early, and she was treated in Europe. Read that story here.