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Peru, Voluntourism

When food poisoning isn’t merely food poisoning

Sometimes food poisoning isn´t merely food poisoning when it´s…well, you´ll see.

After three days of illness, Ginny (our volunteer coordinator) took me and two other sick volunteers to see a doctor in Cuzco—someone the organization trusts and works with regularly. Dr. Victor works in a tiny, single-room, glass-fronted office between a hair salon and an Indian restaurant. The tiny (but clean!) office is crammed with a desk and computer at the front, a bed to the left of the desk, and a tiny area in back where his nurse/receptionist/phlebotomist/lab technician does her work. Certainly, it is everything Dr. Victor needs to do his work, but my Western eyes have never seen it all crammed inside a space hardly bigger than my bedroom back home.

For my exam, the doctor asked me a series of questions, then performed a brief exam and had his nurse take the standard lab samples. Blood was a bit of a challenge because after three days of being ill, I was too dehydrated for my poor veins to cooperate. Finally, however, the nurse-of-all-trades squeezed some drops from a finger—just enough to be analyzed. Then, she handed me a container for a urinalysis. Now, back home, there are special containers for just such a purpose—sterile containers designed so that the sample cannot be contaminated. What the nurse handed me, however, was a recycled baby food jar. I believe it was once mashed carrots.

Still, it did the job and the combination of the tiny, but functional office and the simple, but effective equipment made me think: maybe we´ve over-complicated things a bit. This thought was reinforced when the nurse busily went to work analyzing the blood and urine sample under her microscope in her little makeshift lab and had the results in—get this—30 minutes. I can´t remember the last time I had lab results in 30 minutes. That´s probably because it´s never happened.

So, the verdict? Well, as I said, sometimes food poisoning isn´t merely that nebulous upset stomach that you get after eating a salad in a developing country. In my case, the diagnosis was salmonella poisoning, an intestinal parasite that I picked up from god-knows-where, and an ear infection thrown in for good measure. That´s like hitting triple 7s on a Vegas slot machine. In fact, all three of us volunteers who enjoyed the Peruvian doctor´s-office experience came away with the salmonella diagnosis, but only two of us (me and Michael) were lucky enough to have picked up the intestinal parasite.

By the way, salmonella and intestinal parasites are quite common in this part of the world. There are all manner of things floating around that our bodies are simply not equipped to handle because we enjoy the benefits of clean, drinkable water, more hygienic conditions, etc. You can pick up salmonella and the like from just about anything and sometimes it matters little how careful you are about what you eat. Dr. Victor seems to see so much of this sort of thing that he can write out the prescriptions on autopilot.

Oh, back to the whole ´maybe we´ve overcomplicated things´ bit. The total cost for the doctor´s consultation and three separate lab tests came to $60 US dollars. This might seem normal to those who have insurance, but for those of you who know how our health care system works, you know that your cost is lower because your insurance company negotiates a discounted rate. $60 US dollars was the total, undiscounted, uninsured billing rate. And the medications? The total cost for three medications and two bottles of electrolyte replacements was $46 US dollars. Amazing.

Still, although I do think it´s possible that we´ve managed to overcomplicate things by quite a lot, I have to admit that I had some serious doubts when I had to loan the doctor spare batteries from my camera so he could use his ear scope. At that moment, I would have done and paid anything to be back home at my overpriced, overcomplicated doctor´s office where I would have to wait at least 48 hours for lab results.

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About colleen finn

Colleen Finn is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.

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