There are the plans you have for your journey, and the plans your journey has for you.
Things to do in San Rafael, Argentina:
1. Get an appendectomy.
We were on the neighbor’s ranch watching the annual gallop of the gauchos towards town when it was decided that I should see a doctor. I’d felt queasy all day, but, when it began to hurt to breathe, I knew that it was more than the bottle of Malbec wine we’d had the night before.
During the 30 mile drive over dirt roads to the hospital, I had time to think. I’d entered that travel place where you go from being captain of your itinerary, to giving up all control. It’s this very possibility that keeps many would-be travelers at home. And it’s the place that travel writers secretly love to go.
The on-call doctor at the private clinic looked like he’d stepped off the set of General Hospital. He poked around and called the surgeon to come in, late Saturday night or no. As an interesting aside, each doctor from that point on, from the lab doctor, to Dr. Castro, the surgeon to Dr. Gonzales the emergency room doc, each was more Calvin Klein model-esque than the next. What are the odds? The only way to explain it is that in Argentina you get into medical school based on your looks.
The nurses have an entirely different set of requirements.
A handful of expatriates and a couple of Argentines, some of them strangers an hour earlier, had gathered in the examining room to help. Johnny from South Africa, who had survived 14 heart attacks at the age of 35, introduced himself and told he’d be there no matter what. There were Annette and John, Brits who traveled the world on motorbikes before ending up in San Rafael to try their hands at gentleman farming, and there were Angel and Rosie, he Argentine, she Mexican, along with their daughter Candy. They’d recently moved to San Rafael, Argentina from Las Vegas. Did you get that?
Fifteen-year old Candy was unflappable as my interpreter until the doctors started speaking very fast and she said, “Ah, they’re just talking about a bunch of medical stuff”. Great. Argentines speak Castillano. I speak a rusty version of Spanish. It was a Three Stooges comedy of mis-translation.
The surgeon checked me in for overnight observation.
I ponied up the extra $30 per day for the one patient room with a rattly air conditioner in the window. I couldn’t see how anyone could heal in 100 degree heat, most especially me. Through the partially open doors of rooms up and down the hall, I’d seen visitors standing over the beds of their loved ones fanning them with magazines. Patients are required to have a friend or a family member stay in their rooms to provide basic nursing…an ingenious solution to health care costs, but a tricky one when you are a stranger in town.
As it turns out, my new friends fought over which one of them would remain with me throughout the night.
Next morning the pain had mostly subsided, so I figured I’d soon be headed home and was embarrassed that I’d caused such a ruckus. The docs came in to make rounds, said a few words to each other in rapid Castillano, and suddenly I was being lifted onto a gurney and wheeled down a hall to surgery. I told Dr. Castro, that no offense, but I would like very much to be flown to Buenos Aires for the operation. He assured me that I’d never make it.
Keeping pace with the moving gurney, Annette scribbled down the telephone numbers of my two children and my best friend and said she’d call them in the States. I wondered what they’d think when they heard this woman with a thick Northern England brogue calling to say their mother/friend had gone into surgery in rural Argentina.
A nurse strapped me to a table, tied both my arms straight out at my sides, stuck IV needles into my arms and I lay there like Jesus Christ looking up into the operating light dangling from the ceiling.
My last thoughts as the gas mask came down? A Readers Digest article I’d read years before about a surgical patient who was effectively paralyzed by the anesthesia but remained awake throughout the operation, able to feel every excruciating slice and stitch, but unable to let anyone know.
I ran a quick inventory as the doctor leaned in. I could hear. My eyes still worked. I started to say, “Now wait a minute,” but my mouth wouldn’t work. I began to wag my head violently back and forth looking at the masked surgeon with eyes that I hoped screamed, No! I’m not asleep yet! Your anesthesia isn’t working!…
The upside down face of the anesthesiologist came into focus. “Ms. Sparks”?
”Fineeshed?” I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for ”Over?”
Ow. I’d been kicked in the gut hard. How much time had passed, I asked. Thirteen minutes. Had it been my appendix? Yes. Had it burst? No.
”12 centimeters long!” the surgeon announced as if I’d given birth to something wondrous. Which in a way, I suppose I had. My appendix, an organ normally around 2 inches in length, had been found poking up into my chest cavity, a fully erect seven inches. Oddly, I felt proud.
The next morning, Dr. Novak, I mean Dr. Gonzales, stopped by my room, and after checking my stitches, said, ”You can put on your makeup now.” I chose to believe that he meant that my prognosis was good. Dr. Castro came by too, and announced that he’d made the scar small enough that I could still wear a bikini.
A few hours later, a nurse summoned my new friend Annette out into the hall. She returned carrying a a packet neatly bound in butcher paper. “What’s that?” I asked.
We left it sitting there on my night stand until the next day when I summoned a nurse to take it away.
”La postal?” she asked. ”No, no. Don’t mail it, throw it away!” I said.
It may be a global world, but it is still a Babel world in lots of ways.
Two days later I was ”home” on the ranch surrounded by the warm people of San Rafael, Argentina feeling very grateful indeed.
P.S. – The cost of the surgery, hospital room, doctors and medication was $1800. Less than two months health insurance premiums back home.