“It was hard for me to acknowledge that in the end, we truly are all in the same boat. And that now matter what are differences, we sink or swim together. That’s how it seems to be everywhere else. They take care of each other, no matter what their disagreements. You know, when we see a good idea from another country, we grab it. If they build a better car, we drive it. If they make a better wine, we drink it. So if they’ve come up with a better way to treat the sick, to teach their kids, to take care of their babies, to simply be good to each other, then what’s our problem? Why can’t we do that? They live in a world of ‘we’, not ‘me’. We’ll never fix anything until we get that one basic thing right. And powerful forces hope that we never do. And that we remain the only country in the western world without free, universal health care. You know, if we ever did remove the chokehold of medical bills, college loans, daycare, and everything else that makes us afraid to step out of line, well, watch out. Cause it will be a new day in America.” – Michael Moore
Today marked my first dealings with or more accurately, observations of the Brazilian public healthcare system. MGFI has had a flu (known in Portuguese as gripe) that just will not let go. She usually sees a private doctor in Niteroi but since we’re here in Angra and don’t really know who’s what and where, she cautiously opted for public this time. I went along for the ride.
What I saw opened my eyes in many ways. It made me think about my own country’s lack of universal health care. Anger roared inside me thinking about the farce that is ObamaCare. I wanted to scream about the damage the pharmaceutical and insurance industries and their lobbyists are doing to my fellow Americans back home. But I”m getting ahead of myself…
This afternoon, after being told at our local neighborhood clinic that they were only seeing children today, we set off on an adventure to downtown Angra dos Reis. When we first entered the hospital, my heart sank a little when I saw 30 or so people crammed into a hallway, waiting. “Government provided healthcare will only result in long lines and extreme waiting times” arguments echoed in head. MGFI approached the counter where the woman, to my delight, informed her that we needed to go to the clinic down the street instead. The relief I felt soon turned back into dread when we arrived at our next stop. It too looked like a jumble of sick people standing, sitting and waiting for a possible eternity. Before I could mentally work up a witty level of hell metaphor, however, MGFI was called into a little room. I waited watching the people come and go and trying to read the posters about the dangers of Dengue and smoking. But at around my third poster, MGFI had returned and was informing me that we had to go back to where we first began, the hospital, to get x-rays. “Oh no” I thought “Now the real torture will begin.”
The hospital hallway was full. It was around 30 feet long and maybe 10 feet wide at best. There were two benches at the end with 3 or so people sitting and waiting on each with a fan above them. 25 or so additional people were standing lining the walls. Luckily we found out early on that not everyone there was waiting on x-rays. We preceded to the end of the hall to be near the fan and leaned against an empty space between doors. There were three or four doors on each wall and one on the end. These doors were always opening and closing with doctors, nurses and patients walking in and out and up and down the hallway. Sometimes a head would just pop out and shout a name. Someone would stand and walk in or no one would and then the name would be repeated. If nothing happened that time a new name would fill the air. There was one door towards the end of the hallway that was always opening and closing. Four or five workers would go in and it would close and then three or four more would come down the hall and go in. Then five or so would come out later. I decided that that room must be the Brazilian hospital equivalent of a clown car. I could see inside it when the door opened and it was by no means spacious. This mystery held my interest while we waited…. that is until the most odd and laughable but truly Brazilian thing possible happened. A man entered at the end of the hallway and preceded to set down a large bag and then pull out and strap on a wooden tray filled with candy and snacks. He then made his way down the hall… selling his goodies to those waiting. I had seen this on beaches. I had seen this on buses and trains but never, never did I imagine I was going to see it in a crowded hallway in a hospital while waiting for MGFI to get x-rays. I just laughed. I laughed and shook my head. I thought, “Well at least he’s not shouting the names of the candy and chips. At least that is respectful of the situation.” Right when I was mentally slapping myself and returning to the thoughts of how absurd it all was, MGFI’s name was shouted. We had waited for around 30 minutes. She was back out in the hallway and ready to leave after 15 more.
Back we went to the clinic. There we found that MGFI had to wait by a door and jump into it, past others waiting, when it opened because there was no line and she was no longer on the list of names to be called. It was truly survival of the fittest. MGFI complained to me, “How am I going to do this?”. I answered, “Be Brazilian. You know how to do this. I see you do it everyday.” The next time the door opened, she bobbed and weaved like a pro and was through the door holding up her x-rays like the triumphant winner she was. I almost swelled with pride. Sidenote, I always thought MGFI was a little rude and self-centered before we moved here and now I understand so much more than I’m even capable of explaining properly. Moving on, she was out again in no time and we were sent to another building to pick up the medicine.
The last building was across the street. It had even prettier and more interesting posters warning about the dangers of dengue and smoking out front but I didn’t really have time to admire them. We entered and were told that the pharmacy was upstairs. Once there we entered another room. MGFI gave a seated woman the pieces of paper she had received upon exiting the clinic. The woman whipped out her stamp pad and stamped the pieces of paper six times, looked them over and then stamped again twice. She handed MGFI a number and back we went into the main waiting room and waited for all of around 10 minutes. Her number was called and at a window five or six little stacks of antibiotics and a bottle of cough syrup were pushed through in exchange for her piece of plastic with the number on it. We were done!
I understand the story might have sounded a little like a Kafkian mess but it wasn’t. In reality, the whole process took a little under 3 hours. The whole day made me think about amounts of time I’ve waited in doctor’s offices for appointments. I also thought about waiting for x-ray results. I then thought about the prices of x-rays and medicines and realized all of this had been free, in the sense that no money had changed hands in any of the buildings. Then I thought about my fellow Americans back home. I thought about families without health insurance, who are praying daily that no one will get sick or hurt because if they do, they can’t afford it. I thought of the people so deep in debt from bills for hospital visits and/or procedures that they had to file for bankruptcy. I thought about all of the people who don’t go to the doctor for preventive care or small aches and pains because they can’t afford it. I thought how sometimes later these small things that could have been caught early later become what ends their lives prematurely. Almost on the verge of angry tears, I wanted to yell out that it should be a country’s responsibility to take care of it’s citizens’ health. Tax money, I believe, should go to that and not to fatten a defense budget that is more than every other country’s defensive budgets combined. Basic education is funded and provided, roads, order but the thing that makes all of that possible isn’t. Why? I saw it all in action today and I saw it all working. I am saddened parts of my country have been pacified into thinking that ObamaCare was anything other than a gift to insurance companies and/or fooled into believing certain talking points that insist universal healthcare would be a disastrous mess. You can have both public and private. They can coexist. I have seen it and I have seen it working. I have seen it working efficiently and effectively. I hope some day I will see that in my country as well. But I’m not holding my breath. Then again, if I did, passed out and hit my head, I feel better being here knowing that I wouldn’t have to debate, with a throbbing head, whether I’d like to go to see a doctor about it or pay the rent or buy food.
PS-MGFI is resting now and on the mend.