8 Sept 2012
A few days ago I needed to see a doctor in Guatemala. As a Pop Wuj student I could have gone to our clinic for free, but I thought seeing one the doctors I’d be working with for months might be awkward. Instead I asked the school secretary, Isabél, if she could recommend anyone.
“Sí!” was her resounding reply. “Katarina Juarez. Mi mejor amiga. Let me write down the address and phone number for you.”
A glowing recommendation. Already I was feeling better. I called and I soon had an appointment for the next afternoon.
At the clinic I was greeted by a secretary dressed in heels, professional black capris, a white button-down top, and a scrunchie. She took my name then asked me to take a seat.
“The doctor will be in soon.”
Interesting, I thought. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. (I later learned that she keeps the clinic hours of 9am-1pm, and 3pm-7pm.)
In the waiting room with me were five well-dressed persons, three men and two women, all wearing dark suits, with leather briefcases or bags parked next to them. One man was on his laptop, another on his iPhone. The elitist in me was relieved to find myself at a doctor’s office that the well-to-do frequent.
The door on the far side of the waiting room opened and a man dressed in yet another dark suit exited. On his way out he greeted everyone with a handshake. Warm goodbyes were exchanged on all fronts.
How does everyone here know each other, I thought. Are they distantly related? Do they all work at the same dark-suit-dresscode office?
I was sitting closest to the front door. As the leaving man approached me I saw him hesitate. He seemed to be thinking, “Hmm, how should I greet the gringa?” (I was clearly a gringa; I was wearing synthetic pants, a casual top, and hiking sneakers.) “Will she freak out if I try to shake hands?”
He settled on a smile and a head nod, which were returned.
Since Doctora Katarina’s practice partner and husband is an ob/gyn, the yellow walls of the waiting room were covered with posters advertising the vaccine against cervical cancer. “Do you think that prevention of cancer of the neck of the uterus can wait? Think again.”
It was a room where a large picture of Jesus knocking on a door, carefully wrapped in
plastic, would be out of place. And yet there one was. A few feet away from the clock and in-between two cervical cancer vaccine posters.
As I contemplated what this could mean for the patients there, I remembered that the vast majority of Guatemala is Catholic or Evangelical. I believe the Mormon church has recently grown a strong following too. So there’s essentially no one who would be offended by the poster. Most are probably comforted, non-Christian tourists puzzled at worst. I later told the student coordinator at my school about it.
“Healing in every possible way,” Amy said.
I could tell when my doctor arrived because everyone in the waiting room greeted her, some of the men half-standing up as she walked by.
“Hola, doctora. Buenas noches.”
My name was called soon afterwards. As I walked through a hallway with petite cabinets decorating the sides, past a living room, up a rounded staircase, I wondered if my doctor and her family lived in another area of the clinic/house. Nearing her office I could feel my unease festering.
Do I have enough Spanish to handle this, plagued my thinking. How do I conjugate ‘to notice’ in the past tense again? Damn, I should have brought my dictionary.
If the Spanish-speaking patients at Northwestern feel a fifth of what I felt, they are anxious indeed.
Everything ended up going fine. Doctora Katarina even asked if I was a medical student based on how I described what was going on. (Yay, me!) At the end of the visit she went to her medicine cabinet and scoured the shelves.
After making an antibiotic selection, she returned to her chair and told me, “Voy a regalar ésto a tí.” (I’m going to gift this to you.) “It’s only two pills, so I’ll write a prescription for three more. Take one every day for five days.”
On my way out I paid 150 quetzales for the doctor visit, a little less than $20. I went to the pharmacy immediately afterwards. They only sold the medication in packs of five, which ended up costing another 150 quetzales.
$40 was affordable for me, but would be near-impossible for the average Guatemalan. (The average rural family lives on less than $200 a month. And they have more than 2.4 children.) Which would explain why the other patients in the waiting room were clearly upper-middle class or higher. And which also explains why some of the patients I meet at our very-cheap-to-free Pop Wuj clinic wake up at 3am to get there.
Comment– For anyone curious about the text of the Jesus poster, it read: Aquí estoy, parado en la puerta y toco; si alguien oye mi voz y abre la puerta, yo entraré y comeré con el y el conmigo. (I am here, standing at the door and I knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter and dine with him and he with me.)