Stephen F. Dennstedt
La Antigua, Guatemala (Highlands)
Proof of Life, or “Stupid Is as Stupid Does” (as spoken by the immortal Forrest Gump). It’s been almost two weeks since I tried to kill myself (through stupidity not through intention). And its taken an entire week to work up the courage to relate the story—just too damn embarrassing by far.
I’ve been severely hypertensive (high blood pressure) for a lot of years, and my almost 30-year career in commercial banking (JPMorgan Chase Bank) certainly didn’t help the situation. By the time I left the States, almost 3-years ago now, I was on five different medications for various and sundry ailments (most stress related). Your endocrine system can be a real bitch. Let me backup a moment, and say: that when I began this blog about 4-years ago I wanted to keep it honest, informative and positive for the most part. Many travelers, tourists and expats seem to feel the need to bitch and complain about almost everything, and to entertain their audience with back to back horror stories. This story is reported as is, with no embellishments, judgments or patronization—it deals with circumstances entirely of my own creation, and I am totally responsible for the trouble I got myself into.
Hypertension, the silent killer. As the prescriptions ran out on my various medications I let them lapse. On three of them I had some latitude (the doctors in the USA often over prescribe), but on the two meds for high blood pressure I really didn’t have a choice (although I thought I did). Lesson learned big time. So about a year ago I stopped taking them, and the headaches began—getting more frequent and severe as time passed. Fast-forward to the small village of Panajachel, Guatemala in the Guatemalan Highlands last week. The day of reckoning as it were. Increasingly, during the night, the pressure in my head increased to the point of debilitation: the pain was excruciating and beyond endurance (and I have a high pain threshold), to the point that I was dry retching uncontrollably on an empty stomach, and my vision was thoroughly messed up. But most worrisome was my inability to communicate, I couldn’t articulate the words I thought in my brain—no matter how hard I tried. I thought I was having a stroke, because I couldn’t really walk either. I was beyond rational thought, and though I wasn’t really scared I thought to myself: “This is it old man.” Death would have been preferable to the pain.
Thankfully, Joel and I were sharing a room at our hostel, and he could see the progression of the symptoms. From this point on I don’t remember much from this first day, except that he made the decision to get me to a hospital as fast as possible. Panajachel is a small Maya village on Lagos de Atitlan, and as such has no ambulance service. Our host at the hostel had a car, and said he would drive us to the nearest doctor—somehow Joel managed to get me down from the third floor (good thing I’ve lost a lot of weight over these past 3-years), and into the car. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me at the time, the doctor was in surgery, and we were directed to the state run hospital up the hill in Solola, about twenty minutes farther away. After a fashion they got me into the state run hospital, and I was wheeled in with a broken wheelchair—almost everything in this poor person’s hospital was broken and in a state of disrepair. I was lifted onto a dilapidated bed (mattress really) sans blanket or pillow, and somehow Joel and our host (a Japanese who only spoke marginally better Spanish than Joel) communicated my distress: high blood pressure, possible stroke, confusion, verbal and physical impairment. They slapped a cuff on my arm and within a few seconds the results were clear: 256/153 (normal pressure is 120/80). I believe a total of 4 or 5 doctors eventually showed up, a couple who spoke passable English, and the lines started being inserted: one for an I.V. and one for some kind of injections, and I do remember that a very bitter pill was inserted under my tongue and left to dissolve slowly. I remember being cold, being stripped and shivering without a blanket. I remember retching violently as they tried to get a chest X-Ray and I remember being delirious with pain. I can remember being wheeled from place to place and being sick with vertigo. It’s just bits & pieces really. I remember Joel leaving at some point, and me laying alone in a ward with three other people. I remember being awakened often during the rest of the day and night, and being injected many times, having my blood taken on more than one occasion, being hooked up to beeping machines and asked to take a number of tablets.
The next day I awoke disoriented, with only a vague sense of where I was and what had happened. Everything was dingy or downright dirty: faded, stained and peeling paint on the walls, chipped and dingy floors, bad smells (not totally medicinal) and no heat, no pillow and one thin blanket. What conversation existed was mostly Maya and existed amongst the nurses (my fellow patients weren’t talking), a smattering of Spanish filtered through but no English. The only things that appeared clean and fresh were the nurse’s uniforms. Hours passed and no food was served or offered, only medications—my I.V. was changed often, and I continued to receive both injections and tablets. My head still hurt, but it was manageable—my ability to think and communicate was still impaired (they would ask me a question in Spanish that I could understand, but I couldn’t think of, or pronounce, the correct response even though I knew it). Had I had a stroke? I thought I must have (I still think I “might” have).
I had a visit from my doctor, and I was very impressed. His English was good, he was about my age and was well-educated, very articulate and spent some time with me. He explained to me what had occurred the day before, and assured me I would be okay—at the same time informing me I wouldn’t be leaving that day. He said: “We must get you stabilized first Stephen.” He also assured me once again that I would be okay (though his face didn’t communicate the same message), and confirmed that the extreme cranial pressure in my head had caused my extreme pain, mental confusion and physical impairments. The treatments continued for the next two days, patients and staff alike worked together to make sure I received some food (very minimal and basic). The family of patients provided the food, water and necessities of living of living for their family members in residence. This was a very, very poor (financially) hospital, and family members are expected to chip in. The hospital provided some minimal food (a few tortillas, bananas, beans and a little meat on occasion. No silverware, napkins or the like—most patients had family-provided forks and spoons, I ate using the tortillas and my fingers.
I was discharged on the third day, about mid-day, feeling better but absolutely exhausted. This past week has been all about recovery—I’ve been sleeping a lot, and my chronic headache has continued to subside daily. I was discharged a week ago today, and today is the first day I feel a sense of my old self. The headache is pretty much gone, my mental confusion is improving and I’m walking better. My energy level has improved, I have a new prescription and I’ve been taking my meds as prescribed. I “think” it was a close thing, but the doctor would not confirm that—just smiling at me with serious eyes and saying over and over again that I would be okay. This was in no way shape or form like an American hospital, but I was treated with acceptance, kindness and professionalism within their ability to provide it. I will offer absolutely no criticism of my treatment, only my eternal gratitude to these simple people and the expertise of my doctor(s) and nurses. My fellow patients were generous, kind and helpful given their own dire circumstances. Upon my discharge from the hospital I was told that my treatment had been paid for by the Guatemalan government 100%. No charge whatsoever. When I asked if I could make a donation I was told absolutely not. I told my fellow patients goodbye, and I’m not sure that they will be leaving the hospital—they were all in critical condition. I gave each of my nurses a hug, a smile and my sincerest heartfelt thanks. I truly believe that they all “literally” saved my life.
Though they had little money (the conditions in the hospital were very grim), they made every effort to provide me with the best care possible. This experience is one that I will never, ever forget. I am growing stronger, and better, every single day. There are some lingering effects, and I will follow up with the doctors here in Antigua, but I think I will be good as new in a short time. Yes, I am now taking my medications as prescribed lest you’re tempted to chastise my rash and irresponsible behavior. Guatemala is a poor country, with many folks (especially the indigenous that I was hospitalized with) living below the world poverty level, but they have open and generous hearts. How can one be critical of their acceptance and care? The doctors are well-trained (often in Mexico, the USA and Europe), but they struggle with a dilapidated infrastructure and staggering economic conditions—and yet they charged me nothing.