The Family Doctor: Your tour guide to the health care system

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

My patient's wife waiting anxiously in the hallway outisde the surgery theater

Medicine in developing nations is, most people would probably agree, substantially different from medicine in developed countries.  Still, there are many aspects of the health care experience that seem to be universal, shared by ‘have’s and ‘have-nots’ alike.  For example, the prospect of surgery under general anesthesia is daunting whether you are having it at the world’s most advanced hospital or in a temporary medical mission surgical tent.

And of course, men, women and children of all ages all hate getting injections (except for little old ladies, who—in every country I have ever worked in—take injections and other potentially uncomfortable procedures pretty much in stride).  This week marks the end of our management of one particular patient whose experience made me think about the parallels in health care experience that are shared by patients worldwide.

One day a few weeks ago we had returned to the boat after a long day in clinic, and a 43 year-old

Operating Room

guy walked up to the boat asking if we were the medical doctors and could he consult with us.  We invited him aboard, and I immediately noticed he was taking small, tentative, shuffling steps and was bent forward slightly from the waist, pressing his right hand over his bladder.  He told us that 9 months ago, after several months of severe pain, blood in his urine, and repeated urinary tract infections, he had saved up for an ultrasound and they had found a great big 3 cm stone in his bladder.

Pediatric Ward...the moms sleep on the floor at night next to their children in the cribs

At this stone’s size, open surgical removal is the indicated treatment, but he could not afford the 60,000 Limpira (about $3,300) charged by the private surgeon he saw, but the surgeon said he would make him a deal—he would do the surgery for 45,000 Lempira if the patient arranged for the surgeon to do it at the public hospital, thereby not using any of his own equipment and resources.

The patient DID arrange permission from the hospital to have the private surgeon operate there, but fortunately the patient came to see us (he had no choice, as 45,000 Lempira might as well have been 450,000; he had not worked for weeks and weeks because of his crippling pain).

I visited the public hospital to speak to the chief of surgery there, Dr. Indira Sanchez.  She is a fabulous surgeon; the first night I dropped in to help in the hospital I assisted her doing an open abdominal surgery on a gunshot victim, closing perforations in the colon and removing and directly re-attaching a perforated piece of small intestine (total number of personnel involved in the entire surgery, including me?  Only five people; patient did fine).  She has great hands for surgery—sure, experienced, and capable.  I presented the patient’s case to her, she consulted with him, and booked him for surgery only a few days later.

She gave him the orders for his pre-op blood work and chest x-ray (which he had to get at the private hospital because the public

Coming out of general anesthesia after the bladder stone was removed

hospital x-ray was not working), and he went straight out and got the tests all done, which we microfinanced.  Then he came back to present his test results to one of Dr. Indira’s team, the doctor sent the patient back to Dr. Indira with his endorsement that he was ready for surgery (which we also financed), and two days later the patient had the stone removed in about 30 minutes under general anesthesia.

He recovered well, and is no longer in agonizing pain all day every day.  In a few more days he can go back to work, after over 9 months of debilitating pain.

Pre-op blood tests and x-ray:  $80

Open surgery for bladder stone removal:  $20
Price for living without pain?  Pretty hard to quantify, but it seemed pretty important to the patient!

The whole thing got me thinking about the complexity of health care, and how daunting it can be for a patient to try and navigate

Patient files at the Public Hospital

their way through the system—DEFINITELY an experience shared by patients in the developing and developed world.  Almost anyone who has ever had to use their health service, especially for something major, can appreciate the confusing nature of going from specialist to specialist, office to office, exam to exam, wondering when the whole process will finally be over.

This case was a classic example of one of the main roles now played by General Practice and Family Practice physicians—that of a guide to navigating the maze of specialists and tests and procedures available in an ever-increasingly complex health care system.  As Medicine gets more and more specialized, it will become more bewildering for patients—especially for patients who do not have a wide base of health knowledge—to find their own way through it.

The patient gave us permission to document his whole experience; soon we will put out another short video focusing on his experience with a health care system.  I think that people in any nation at any socioeconomic level will resonate some part of his experience with their own history of interactions with health care.  Some aspects of being a patient appear to be universal…watch and decide.

Surgery Department

In this case, the patient was unaware of how to try and arrange a public hospital surgery and our representation (based on the good working relationships we have developed with many clinicians here on Roatan) was key to the surgery being performed..  Although we assisted the surgery and post-op care, our main role here was simply to take a patient and help guide him through the whole process, making an overwhelming prospect (especially for someone acutely sick!) a smooth series of events resulting in the patient regaining his health.

The other primary role of the GP or Family doctor is to try and help keep their patients well enough that they never have to go to the hospital!

A real highlight of the whole experience for me is that it all happened when my mom and

Maria, our 87 year old irrepressible grandma and our mom headed for the old pirate channel through the mangroves

Grandmother and cousin Ishan and his wife Maria were here visiting us in Roatan.  These were the people who have been there from the very, very, very beginning, when Floating Doctors was a wild dream  keeping me sane during months of freezing, dreary weather in Ireland, to the year of frantic planning and fund raising, to the year of rebuilding the boat, to Haiti and thence to the shores of Honduras.

Our mom making friends in Jonesville

Our families have been so supportive…without them this never would have been possible.  I was very proud to finally be able to show them what all their encouragement and support made possible; it meant the world to me that they came all the way to Honduras to see us.  Love to all of you–fair winds and a fast return.

Our Grandma aboard Southern Wind in Honduras!

Please Click On Any Photo Below To Activate The Slide Show Viewer

All Patient Photos Used With Patients’ Consent