Hospitalized in Colombia (It Was Great!)

We had been in Medellín for about a week, and the tingling was getting out of control.

It felt like half of my face had fallen asleep or gone numb. Never a good idea to Google your symptoms (of course), but I did (of course). What I read wasn’t good. I was probably dying, I figured. Plus, my doctor at home recommended that I seek medical care ASAP. So I set about doing that.

Ethan and I always purchase travel health insurance when we go abroad, so I called my provider for information about local medical facilities, preferably English-speaking ones. The representative that I spoke with didn’t seem the most knowledgeable, but she did say that she believed that one facility that they were contracted with was an urgent care clinic with an English-speaking wing. Bingo.

It was Friday afternoon, and we were heading to Guatapé for the weekend, so I tried to call to schedule an appointment for the following Monday. Turns out my phone Spanish was definitely not good enough. It was impossible. We decided to just stop by the clinic to make the appointment in person on the way to the bus station. Quick visit, and we’d be off to Guatapé! And, who knows, maybe the tingling would be gone by Monday anyway.

So we arrive at the clinic. Only, it’s not a clinic. It’s a full-on private hospital. Not what we were expecting, but okay. We go to the information desk, and, in terrible Spanish, I explain that I’d like to make an appointment regarding numbness of the face. “Numbness of the face!” the woman at the desk cries (in very fluent, very fast Spanish). “This is an emergency!” And, not fully trusting that I understand the gravity of the situation, she takes me by the elbow and leads us across the building to the emergency room. She plants me in front of a receptionist.

At this point we don’t totally understand what’s going on. But what’s going on is that I am being admitted to the emergency room.

The woman admitting us asks how I will pay for my visit. Luckily, the insurance company has sent along a guarantee of payment in Spanish. There’s a $500 USD deductible, but the insurer confirms that they will pay up to $3,000, and potentially more if proven necessary. At this point, I’m frustrated to be out $500, but also starting to succumb to general sense of alarm. Numbness of the face! This is an emergency!

We’re brought into a waiting room with an elderly Colombian couple, and from there I’m placed on a hospital bed (!!) and wheeled into a wing. This turns out to be a special wing for patients with private insurance. We are definitely the only non-Colombians there.

This all seems pretty excessive to me, considering this is a condition that has been plaguing me now for days, if not weeks. I don’t think I’m about to keel over dead? Then again, I don’t really know what other options I have. My Spanish is terrible, and I hadn’t actually realized that I was about to be an inpatient until the moment I was given my own bed. If I want medical care at all, this seems to be what’s going to happen. So here I lie, in my hospital bed, with my hospital bracelet, in the emergency room, in Colombia.

Fully hospitalized by accident. It was all a little ridiculous.

A doctor meets with me and is very, very patient as I slowly, painstakingly explain my symptoms and answer her questions. She seems concerned about these strange symptoms. She runs some tests. Ethan and I still hoping that this will go quickly so that we can catch the last bus to Guatapé. The doctor comes back and recommends a tomografía, which Google helpfully informs me is a CT scan. Okay, yes, yes, seems good, seems wise. We just need to wait until the radiologist is available. Very good, very good.

But the more we wait, the more I start to rethink. How long will this take? And how much will this cost?? We’re going home in about ten days… Maybe I should get this done in New York? Then I will speak the language, understand what is happening.

I go find the doctor. I tell her this. “They’ll do the same test in your country,” she says, thinking that I’m skeptical of the Colombian health care system.

The thing is, I’m not skeptical at all. I’ve been hospitalized once before, in Washington DC, and this experience, so far, is overall WAY better. The doctors and nurses are less rushed. Everyone is so friendly and seems to have all the time in the world to hear me out as I mangle their language and trip over my words. But I am feeling pretty overwhelmed, and I wish I understood the language better. I don’t really know what’s happening around me, and I feel perpetually two steps behind.

She says okay, that she’ll prepare the paperwork to release me. Aaaaand as soon as she’s gone I regret my decision, worry that maybe actually in truth I am on the verge of dropping dead, and call her back to explain my latest change of heart. She’s the nicest lady in the world and betrays not an ounce of annoyance. Phew.

So now we’re settled in for the long haul. Guatapé can wait until the morning. The doctors’ shift change comes and goes. I meet with my new physician. A nurse comes over and begins inserting an IV in my arm. “For what?” I ask.

“For the pain,” says the nurse.

“But I don’t have any pain!” I protest.

“For the discomfort,” she tells me. She’s very determined, and my Spanish is failing me, so I let her stick it in my arm. It’s a low-dose pain medication. But, once again, I immediately change my mind, and now that I’m immobile, Ethan has to go get the doctor.

She comes over, I explain, and she is extremely skeptical. “It’s for the discomfort,” she tells me. “Do you have an allergy or something?” Puzzled though she may be, she agrees to turn off the flow of medication, although apparently the IV won’t be disconnected from my arm until I’m released from the hospital.

Hours and hours go by. It’s late at night by now. We remind a nurse that we are still waiting, ask if the radiologist will be free soon. “Yes yes,” she says, “you are in line.”

It’s suspicious timing, though, that about one minute later someone arrives to ferry me to the CT scan. IN A WHEELCHAIR. With my IV bag in my lap! This is pretty much the most ridiculous circumstance imaginable, and I’m trying hard to not actually laugh out loud as I’m pushed through the hallways. The very abandoned, closed-down-for-the-night hallways. There definitely was not a queue for the radiologist.

Hospital in Medellin, Colombia
Not a soul to be seen.

Soon after the scan, my results come back negative for any emergency condition. Thank goodness! So I’m good to go, with instructions to see my doctor as soon as I’m back home.

Now’s the moment of truth: the billing. This $500 deductible is just money down the drain, I figure. My real worry is that it will come out significantly above $3,000, and it will be a hassle with the insurance company. In the US, it would definitely be in the high thousands. Multiple doctors, multiple tests, an inpatient visit, an IV, a CT scan…

$93.54.

Yes. Ninety-three dollars and fifty-four cents.

WHAT. To an American, this is insane. Such great care, such patient and knowledgeable doctors, all for just $93.54. Mad. Ness. Madness.

So we go to Guatapé the following morning, have a nice weekend, and the tinging starts to subside. The following week we go back to the hospital to pick up a disc with copies of the CT scan, in case it should be needed by my doctor back home. The lady at the front desk remembers me, asks about my face, and once again, takes me by the elbow and leads me to where I need to go.

Since then, I’ve had other tests run back home, and I’m fine. My doctor thinks it was probably just a virus that my body fought off.

But, lesson learned. Should you find yourself in Colombia with an ailment, don’t hesitate to visit the local private hospital. You’re in the best of hands!

Have you ever had to get medical care abroad? Tell us about it in the comments!

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