by Thora Guthrie
We knew that the medical care system was different here in Mexico long before the doctor called us at home the day after he had performed surgery.
It had been a few months since my husband Shawn followed our son over a ski jump and knew in mid air that it had been a big mistake. It was bad, but it has to be bad to send either of us for medical care. Both self-employed professionals, we had not been able to afford medical insurance for the past few years.
At the office of a specialist in California, we were told that Shawn needed to get an MRI, a complete set of x-rays and pay a deposit of $250 before he would be seen by the doctor. This was the special discounted, cash-only, no-insurance cost per visit. At $3,000 for the MRI alone, we had to seek help elsewhere.
Both of us spent the better parts of our lives in Southern California, frequently visiting Mexico, camping with our families, traveling or just having fun with friends. I knew that quality medical care was available in Baja for a fraction of the cost of the same care north of the border. So I did some research and found out about an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist in Ensenada. I made an appointment for us to meet him at his office at Velmar Hospital the following Friday evening.
Dr. Palacios was gentle, soft-spoken and confident. Using close-to-perfect English, he had Shawn lie down and tested his pain threshold, (not so gently) pushing, pulling and twisting his leg and then announced that he had torn his ACL. He brought up graphics on his computer to illustrate the injury and describe the surgery required to repair his knee, adding that he would most likely return to 100% strength and use of it. We asked about an MRI and he replied that we didn’t need one because he was very familiar with this type of injury, adding that we were most welcome to have one if it would make us more comfortable, but that they were costly. When pressed, he admitted that an MRI would cost around three thousand …pesos…approximately one tenth (now one eighteenth) of the cost in California! We asked the cost of the surgery and he estimated that, between his fee and the cost of the hospital, it would come to approximately three to four thousand dollars! Again, approximately one tenth of the cost of such a procedure in California.
We decided on the spot to trust the diagnosis of this confident surgeon and opt out of the offered MRI, imagining how many tacos the $300 savings could buy us. We told him we wanted to go ahead with the surgery and left the hospital after paying the friendly receptionist the equivalent of $30 for this initial visit and diagnosis.
Arriving at the hospital at 7 am on the Monday of Shawn’s surgery we checked in and were led up to the second floor. The clean little room included a hospital bed, a private bathroom and a view of Ensenada Bay. A light sea breeze cooled the room which also included a visitors couch that unfolded into a bed for attentive family members. A nurse came in immediately with a hospital gown and in another few minutes, a colorfully clad, bespeckled man came in and introduced himself as the anesthetician. He confirmed what Dr. Palacios had told us, that Shawn would be receiving an epidural, blocking any pain below the waist and he would feel nothing. He added that Shawn could sleep during the procedure if he chose. Doctor Palacios arrived next, announcing that the surgery would take about two hours and asked if we had any questions. Within ten minutes a handsome male nurse and his assistant were wheeling Shawn away to the operating room down the hall.
About the time they wheeled my loopy, bandaged up husband back into the sunlit room, Doctor Palacios announced that the surgery had gone very well and Shawn should just rest while they continued to lace his IV drip with a pain medication and antibiotic cocktail.
At 8 am the next morning, the doctor returned and removed the tangle of tubes and changed the dressing on his knee, commenting that it looked very good. I went downstairs to the hospital reception area where the reception/accounting/office manager totaled up our bill and I paid her $4,000 USD, the estimated cost of the same surgery in the U.S. being $35,000. We propped Shawn up with pillows in the back seat of the car and made our way to the border.
It was that evening that Doctor Palacios called us at home to find out how Shawn was feeling. He then explained to us that he reviewed the bill we had been given and realized that they charged us for some services that had not been needed nor performed and that when we came back for our follow up appointment, there would be an envelope with $400 USD in it waiting for us! You could have knocked me over with a tortilla! What? Quality, diligent, timely and caring service by a doctor who actually seems to have gone into medicine because he wants to help people, not because he wants to become wealthy? AND a sense of propriety and honesty??!!
As one can see, our experiences with medical care in Mexico has been as wonderful as surgical experiences can be.