“Va a estar cuatro de seis horas para ver el doctor,” the nurse said. She looked at me as if she was trying to scare me, daring me to stay in the emergency room and wait that long. I had no fever, my vitals were normal, and yet I felt horrible. Dammit, I thought, I’m in for a long day.
So far, the day had already been long. After fighting an illness for ten days with worsening, rather than improving symptoms, I decided it was time to get checked out. I had chest pain, a painful cough and a general shortness of breath. Though I had finally surrendered the fact that I was sick, I was still in a hurry to get better so I could get back to exploring. At this rate, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Carolyn, who was generously hosting me in Colombia and looking out for me when I was sick, and I had arrived to the emergency room in Bogotá nearly two hours before. She dropped me off so that I could start the registration process while she parked the car. Approaching the entrance, there was a security guard checking the IDs of the crowd of people congregated on the other side of the doors attempting to get into the waiting room. The guard resembled a bouncer in a nightclub, the kind of club that is strict on IDs with a long line and an exclusive VIP list. The inside of this exclusive club, though, was dirty, overcrowded and definitely not resembling anything of prestige like the crowd outside suggested. Even I, a patient, had a hard time getting through to check in. I had to explain that despite my healthier than most looking manner, I was sick and it was an emergency. I shoved my passport in the guard’s face, kept saying “estoy enferma,” and eventually, he reluctantly let me in. I gave the registration desk my information, took a triage number (there were 70 people ahead of me) and waited for Carolyn. I saw her, minutes later, arguing with the same security guard. I went up in an attempt to explain that I didn’t speak Spanish, which I’m sure he picked up on given my less than convincing plea to enter the ER, and that she was my translator. Had my language skills been better or had Carolyn’s Spanish been worse I might have been alone, and that terrified me.
Thankfully, after registering, two chairs became available. I sat next to Carolyn, holding my little paper slip like I was waiting at the DMV. This is one of the few times in my life that I can honestly say I would have preferred to be at there as it undoubtedly would have been a more pleasant experience. Around me, every inch of the ER was filled. There were crying babies, distressed mothers and elderly people, the majority of whom looked worse than I did. People were collapsed in the chairs and flooding the floor. We continued to sit watching the never-ending list of names appear on the screen above. Finally, over an hour later, the name Lucy Mac, as apparently my middle name, MacPhail, is unpronounceable in the Spanish language, was called. After the less than helpful encounter with the skeptical nurse in triage, Carolyn went to check with admission who assured us that the wait to see the doctor shouldn’t be that long.
The overcrowded emergency room waiting area
We spent a total of six hours waiting to get seen by the doctor. Initially, we stood, as all chairs were full, and the floor was covered with people, spilled drinks and trash. Eventually, though, I was feeling weak and Carolyn was tired, so we joined the masses on the floor. Carolyn went up repeatedly with my passport to check on my status in line. The number of people ahead of me fluctuated. First there were three, then two then one, then back to two, then three again. Apparently, cases were presented to the doctor in order of emergency and those with higher priority were able to jump the line. It made sense but I knew that despite feeling terrible, my lack of fever and unalarming triage exam meant that my turn would likely never come. Still, Carolyn kept going back. She told them how long we had been waiting, three hours, then four, then five and a half. Finally, the woman in admissions called the doctor to inform him that there was a sick American who had been waiting for hours. My name was called minutes later.
We went through another security guard and down a series of winding halls to the doctor’s office. I explained my symptoms, he asked me questions and Carolyn translated when I didn’t understand. He informed me that he thought that I had an infection and that something was obstructing my lower lungs. He read off a series of treatments and exams that I would go through before leaving, told me to find him if I got lost, and left Carolyn and me at the nurse’s desk. Finally, after a six-hour wait, I felt like I was in good hands.
Carolyn dropped me off at my first stop, respiration therapy, and then left briefly to check in with her son at home. Momentarily alone, I was hooked up to a giant nebulizer where I was given a series of three medications over the course of an hour. As soon as the oxygen tank was turned on and the nebulizer began I felt better. So much better. For the first time in over a week I felt like I could breathe. Though I had spent nearly eleven days in bed resting, this was the first time that I truly felt relaxed. With each exhale my pain faded and my breath got stronger as vapor flooded the room like a dragon breathing fire. It was freaking awesome.
Loving life during respiration therapy
Every twenty minutes, the nurse switched out one medication for another, and while my lungs felt lighter and my breathing felt easier, I had no idea what was being put into my body. After an hour, a woman came into the room, looked at me and rattled off a long-winded question in Spanish. She spoke so fast that I didn’t understand and the machine was covering my nose and mouth so there was no way for me to respond. She looked at me like I was stupid and repeated the question until the nurse who had been helping me approached and explained that I was a foreigner. Immediately, her tone softened, and she explained, slowly, that we were going to get my IV.
I sat down in the small room and attempted to start a conversation as she prepared my IV. Carolyn hadn’t returned yet but I wasn’t concerned. All it was an IV and while I hated shots, I knew I could tough it out. “Estoy nerviosa,” I said, “no me gusta…” and then I realized I didn’t know how to say needles. She looked at me concerned and I smiled and tried to reassure her I was fine, even though my confidence in my medical Spanish skills without Carolyn’s presence was falling at the same rate that my heart rate was rising. The nurse couldn’t fine a vain the first time she tried, and then when she did, she couldn’t draw blood. I was poked and prodded, flinching every time the needle struck my body despite her constant scolding to “no se mueven”. Finally, my blood was drawn. She then inserted my IV and started injecting random liquids into it. My whole left arm was cold. I asked if that was normal, she shrugged yes, and continued to inject things through syringes into the tubes in my hand. At that point, my heart rate was through the roof. I started to feel weird sensations throughout my arm and, my overactive mind started to panic. She inserted the last one, held up the syringe, said dolor the Spanish word for pain, and pointed at my lungs. I didn’t put two and two together until minutes later, after settling in the IV treatment area where I met up with Carolyn, I had a laugh attack. I still don’t remember what was so funny. Actually, sitting in the small room with several very sick people around me, nothing was funny. I don’t know what medicine was running through my body as I didn’t fully understand what the nurse had been explaining to me at the time of insertion, but what I did know, and what Carolyn could evidently see, is that I was high. So there I was, the young foreign traveler, having a senseless laugh attack in the middle of the emergency room. So much for not standing out.
Getting injected with unknown medication
Apparently, at this point, my presence in the hospital was known. I was the extranjero, the foreigner. When Carolyn left the hospital to check in at home, she was warned by our doctor that they might not let her back in due to overcrowding and prohibition of patient guests in the ER. Upon her return, however, there was no trouble. She didn’t even need to explain herself as apparently she was already known as the extranjero’s translator. The front bouncer recognized her immediately and escorted her through the masses outside and the hectic waiting room to the second door into the actual emergency room.
Hanging out in the IV treatment room
We sat for two hours as I went through the IV treatment and then Carolyn went to find the nurse for my X-Ray. After a while, I went out to wait with her in the hall and realized that the Colombian Copa America soccer game was on in a small open room off of the hallway. Every seat was filled but I edged my way into the corner of the room. I was still hooked up to my IV, wrapped in cords and holding the fluid sack in my right hand, trying to avoid bumping the needle inserted in my left. The room overflowed with sick Colombians, hooked up to IVs just like me, coughing and wheezing but clearly more concerned with the game on the TV in front of them than their health. I was enthralled and momentarily more elated than I had been on the pain medication. The patients in the room were smarter than me. I wished I had thought of coming here sooner.
Colombian soccer games were one of the few things that would get me out of bed when I was sick
Reluctantly I left the game and went to get an X-Ray. Surprisingly that process was easy. Six hours after finally being admitted to see the doctor we returned to his office. He looked at my test results and rattled off a diagnosis. Viral bronchitis, no antibiotics. He gave me an inhaler to help with my breathing, anti-inflammatory medicine and pain medication. All were to manage the symptoms. The illness was viral so the healing I would have to do by myself.
Carolyn and I left and headed towards the billing station, my IV still hooked up to my hand. I was shocked to see that the bill was barely over $100 USD. In the states, a six-hour ER stay, series of tests and treatments would have cost thousands of dollars. Finally, after paying, the nurse removed my ID and at 11:00 p.m. we were able to go home.
Throughout the day I was grateful. Grateful to know in the States the process would have been faster and I wouldn’t have spent nearly six hour sitting on an emergency room floor, grateful that in all other health situations in my life I have been able to speak English and understand what was happening to me, grateful that, in general, I am healthy and get to avoid hospitals altogether.
Most importantly, though, I was grateful to Carolyn. She had provided me a safe place to stay in an unfamiliar city and welcomed me into her family home. She believed that I was sick and, though I had my doubts about getting it checked out, supported me. She understood the complicated situation of having health problems far from home and the challenge of navigating a foreign hospital and attempting to understand medical terms in a second language. She didn’t leave me, despite the long wait, her children, and countless other things she could have been doing. She stuck with me all day. I was grateful for her patience, her advocacy and her translation.
After 12 hours in the emergency room, I left completely elated, my lungs invigorated, and my mind intoxicated by yet another new experience, though given the long, mostly frustrating day, I am pretty sure I was still under the influence of the hospital drugs. I was comforted by the care of the ER doctors and a diagnosis and mistakenly under the impression that I would get better in a couple of days. Little did I know, I wasn’t even halfway there…