La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Monday, October 23, 2006

What free health care?

It's easy to take good medical care for granted. Blessed with a job that comes with excellent health insurance, I don't bat an eye when I pay my 15 dollar co-pay for a doctor visit, or the same thoughtless amount for a test that costs over a thousand bucks. I realize not all Americans are so lucky. But for those among us with no health insurance, and limited English skills, doctor visits can be not only expensive, but confusing and terrifying as well.

Last week, my friend who cooks in a Mexican restaurant put his hand into a food processor. The specially designed guard intended to keep his hand safely away from the swirling blade didn't really do a good job of guiding the lettuce down the chute, and besides, he doubted that his fingers were really long enough to reach the blade. After several shockingly quick turns of the blade, his eyes rolled back in his head and he hit the floor, blood spurting from his fingertips.

All I could discern from his calm voice over the phone was that he had cut himself with a knife, and had been sent home from work for the rest of the day. His hands are just rough enough to attest to the hard work he has done ever since he was about ten. More recently, small mishaps in the kitchen have left scars on the tip of his thumb, and on the side of one finger. Nothing serious.

Arriving at his apartment eight hours later, expecting to find him resting comfortably with a band aid on his finger, I was greeted instead by his usual sweet smile, beaming up at me from the floor. His hand dangled into the kitchen garbage can which teemed with paper towels soaked in coagulated sangre. One of his roommates had wound a tourniquet around his arm to stem the bleeding, which continued nonetheless at an astounding rate. "WHY DIDN'T YOU GO TO A DOCTOR?" The question was absurd, I knew it as soon as I said it. First of all, it was blurted in English, which he doesn't understand, and secondly.. "He can't go to the doctor. It could make trouble for the restaurant, and for all of us," English-speaking roommate Juan explained gravely. All that blood was making me feel a little bit hysterical. "I don't care. We are going to the doctor, and we have to go NOW. Can you walk?" Still smiling, which he always does when he is scared or in pain, my friend nodded and started to get up. Quiet Julio spoke up in Spanish, "Mira.. you can't tell the doctor this happened at work. You have to lie." I nodded, pressing my lips together hard to compose myself. "I understand. I will say he did this at home. Vamos."

With his hand wrapped in a kitchen towel, we arrived at the walk-in clinic a half hour before closing time. The receptionist took one look at us and summoned a nurse, who swept us past those already waiting into an examination room. The doctor, a kind, hefty man with small, round glasses, was the same man who had treated my friend for an unexplained case of hives just a week before. That visit had cost 73 dollars, the "reduced rate for those without health insurance," the receptionist had explained. My friend reimbursed me for the expense less than a day later without being asked.

The kind doctor asked only once if the accident happened at work, to which I answered a strained "No, he did it at home." My friend wondered out loud when he would be able to return to work, and understanding the gist of his inquiry, the doctor said, "He's a hard-working fellow, isn't he?" "Yes, he is," I said. "God bless 'em," he murmurred as he wrapped my friend's fingers in gauze.

Answering medical questions for my friend stretches my interpretive skills to their limit. How do you say "tetanus" in Spanish? Have you ever had any injections? Yes, when I was sick, before I came here. What kind? Shrug. He had never been to a doctor; the woman in the pharmacy gave him a shot once. The small scar on his shoulder was from an innoculation that "everyone in Guatemala" receives.

He looked sideways at the probe aimed at his apprehensive smile. At a loss for words, I opened my mouth and said "Aaaahhh.." He followed suit, but I had to explain in convoluted Spanish to put the thermometer under his tongue, and to close his mouth around it.

The Vicodin would take the edge off the pain and help him sleep. I carefully explained that he could take one or two before bed. "They will make you sleepy," I said. "Don't drink any alcohol with this medicine, it can kill you." I could just see his well-meaning friends giving him a shot or two of tequila to kill the pain; I didn't want to underemphasize how serious mixing codeine with alcohol could be. You can't take anything that's common knowledge to the average American for granted.

He went back to work today after a week off. Waiting anxiously for the doctor bill, and paying 40 to 50 dollars a day to his coworkers to cover for him on their days off, he lamented his mounting debts. But his boss graciously offered to pay the doctor bill, and surprised him with his normal week's pay. I offered to help, but I offered tactfully, because he hates to accept money from anyone. He politely declined, as usual.

This morning, for the first time, I visited a Western Union office. In far away Guatemala, his mother is suffering from the flu, and he wants to be sure she can go see a doctor. As I handed over 200 of his hard earned, carefully saved dollars, I said a silent prayer that his mom would receive the care she needed.