Nobody likes having operations – the helplessness, the exposure of our bodies to strangers, sickness and germs. For me, it was especially traumatic because my only experience with hospitals was having my tonsils out when I was 7.
Also, I’m squeamish. While my sister donates blood regularly, I have to turn away at a bloody accident on TV. But now there was no reprieve. I had what is euphemistically known as “female trouble” – a prolapsed uterus. The diagnosis came from a general practitioner, who gave me the bad news: I needed surgery. She supplied me with the names of two gynecologists in private practice for further exams, and thus the process began.
Costa Ricans are lucky in that they can choose private or state health care. Many doctors who work for the Caja, as the state health system is known, have private offices after hours, and for many minor problems it’s more convenient to visit a doctor after 4 p.m. Also, many drug stores have doctors’ offices on the premises. The doctor gets space at low rent and the drug store gets all the prescriptions. This works for the public, too, in that consultations cost little.
With my friend Sonia taking me by the hand, I went to her private gynecologist, who put me at ease but did not spare me the ultimate news. He explained what the operation would entail and showed me an ultrasound of what my insides look like. He said I could go to a private hospital, such as CIMA or Clínica Bíblica, where the operation would cost about $3,000 and I could get it over with sooner; or I could go to the Alajuela hospital for free because I had Caja insurance, but I’dhave to wait for an opening. I picked Alajuela because the insurance covered everything, the hospital is only three years old and, most important, it was close to home. There’d be no languishing in a hot car in a traffic jam while weak from an operation.
But first I would have to have blood and urine tests, either at a Caja hospital or a private clinic. For this I chose private, mainly because there was a clinic with a parking lot close to home and I was sure I would faint from the blood test. This was September 2007.
In March 2008, I had my first exam at the hospital. The staff was helpful, the doctor thorough and the appointment on time. The operation was scheduled for February – 11 months away! However, I couldn’t complain about the delay because I: 1) lost the list of gynecologists the first doctor gave me and had to start over; 2) didn’t know I was supposed to take the test results to the doctor myself and lost a couple of weeks wondering what happened to them; and 3) forgot to take my insurance card to the hospital to make the appointment and had to go back a second time.
A phone call a few days before the operation reminded me to report to patient services at 7 a.m. and bring slippers, towel, toothpaste and personal items. There, I joined a dozen other nervous people waiting to be signed in and taken away into the bowels of the building.
After my personal data were reviewed, I was given a wrist bracelet and a plastic bag for my clothes and, along with two other women and a guide, was sent to the second floor. Here we were weighed and measured, had our blood pressure taken, were given peach-colored, crossover Diane von Fürstenberg-style dresses and were assigned beds.
Six of us shared a room, which contained a shower, bathroom and sink and was only steps away from the nurses’ station.
The first day was for tests, X-rays and explanations. A doctor came around for a little chat about my uterus, made a drawing of it and said they would decide on the operating table how much to take out. I had to sign a release that said I could stop the procedure at any time. (Could I scream, “Stop!” on the operating table, I wondered?) Several doctors came by, one with a string of students, to check on us, and it was impressive how they protected our modesty by closing the curtains around the beds and holding up sheets so no unauthorized people could peek. When we six ladies were alone, we cheerily discussed our organs.
The morning of the operation, two nurses helped me to dress, all in green, and be ready to roll at 7:30 after tucking the book containing my data under the headrest of the gurney.
All the way to the third floor, I was greeted by green-gowned operators. At least seven times someone took the book and asked my name and what type of operation I was having. It was reassuring that they checked and wouldn’t take out my appendix or a lung instead.
In the operating room, the surgeon introduced himself, opened my data book and confirmed my name and what type of operation I was having. Then the anesthesiologist introduced himself and a nurse came over to the table, and that was it for me. The next thing I knew, it was 9:30 and I was back in bed 253. Later that day, the doctor looked me over, congratulated me on such an easy operation and said I could go home the next day.
I felt the care was good, the attention plentiful, my roommates and their families nice (helping raise and lower beds, lending cell phones, calling a nurse, etc.), but there were negative points, too. The food was too greasy for me (a health-food nut) and we had only tablespoons for eating. I didn’t even try to cut the big round chunk of carrot, envisioning it flying across the room and landing in someone’s lap. And the jabbing of the intravenous tube into my hand hurt like hell!
I don’t plan on any more operations, but, should the need arise, I am no longer terrified at the prospect. Caja hospitals are not bad.