Traveling to a foreign country, especially Mexico, you sort of expect to get sick. Of all other foreigners I’ve met so far, I’m the only one that has managed to dodge the “Moctezuma’s Revenge”, which you get from accidentally drinking the water or water-tainted food. I thought I was in the clear. I was wrong.
This past week I got very sick, and although I’m now on the mend, I feel compelled to write about the experiences I’ve had. I want to shed some light on the differences between the health systems in Mexico and America, and I also want to show this to the American Consulate, in the hopes that foreigners (and Mexicans too) stay away from a certain doctor.
Let’s go back to Tuesday. I had just returned from Playa del Carmen the night before, and woke up in the morning with a sore throat and achey joints. It wasn’t too bad, so I got dressed, hopped a bus, and went to school. During class, my hand began to itch. Upon looking closely, I could see three tiny white bumps on my thumb. I thought I must have gotten a spider bite in my sleep: that happens to me in Texas sometimes too. When I got home from school, things started to go way downhill. My throat hurt worse, and I felt a strange pain on my big toe. I assumed it was an ingrown nail, and didn’t pay much attention to it. Tere took me to the pharmacy around the corner.
Every pharmacy here has a “minute clinic” type thing, where you can see a doctor and get a prescription if you need one (this costs only 35 pesos- which is around $3 USD! It definitely has its pros and cons, but I think we need more of these in the states). After a two minute consultation, the doctor gave me a receipt for antibiotics and aspirin. Now, I know I’m not a doctor myself, but I know the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection, and I know that overuse of antibiotics is a very, very bad thing for my own health and for society as a whole (drug-resistant MRSA, anyone?) I was convinced I had a “24-hour bug” and would wake up the next day feeling fine. I chucked the antibiotics into the trash. To be honest, I might not have taken them even if it WAS bacterial.
However, the next day I woke up feeling much, much worse. Everyone in Tere’s family had their own opinion on how I got it (most of them to do with being in Playa) and they unanimously offered the solution, “take antibiotics”. Apparently, they take antibiotics WHENEVER they get sick here! They say they make them feel better, but whats really happening is their body just naturally getting over the VIRUS during that time! Nobody would believe me when I said “I’m sure that this is viral” (or, “estoy segura que tengo una infeccion viral). Tere’s son was POSITIVE that I got it from swimming in the ocean (funny, because I didn’t) and everyone else just assumed I was massively hungover (once again, wrong. I went to sleep early the last two nights in Playa).
And then the weird kicked in. The bumps that I had assumed were spider bites had grown, reddened… and multiplied. They were still barely visible to anyone but me– I’m not sure I would have even noticed them if they hadn’t hurt so bad. I also noticed that the pain in my toe was a bump and not an ingrown nail, and it too had multiplied. I freaked out, and hopped on the Google. It took me two split seconds to diagnose myself with the only thing that fit: Hand Foot Mouth Disease. Very common in kids, this funny-sounding disease can and does happen often in adults as well. It presents first with feverish symptoms and a sore throat, followed a day or two later by red bumps or blisters all over ones hands and feet. ONLY on hands and feet- nowhere else on the body. Rarely does a Google search for a mystery malady turn up with such a perfect match. I took a screengrab of the CDC page about it in Spanish (Manos, Pies, y Boca) to show Tere.
The next morning I woke up feeling a thousand times worse. I had blisters in my throat, and more appearing on my hands and feet every time I looked at them. One of my teachers drove me to the hospital Star Medica, which boasts the “best” doctors in the city of Merida. I must have found the one exception.
His name was Dr. Adolfo Solis, and he spoke perfect English. I said, “I know I’m not a doctor, but I think I know what I have…”
He said, “Well you know yourself better than anyone. Shoot.”
I told him, “I think I have hand foot mouth disease.”
After a long pause he burst out laughing. Shaking his head back and forth he said, “you Americans make these things up. There’s no such thing.”
To which I was stunned. Hand foot mouth, while it may sound funny and not be well-known, happens all over the world, and the first documented cases of it occurred in New Zealand in the 50s. Also, this doctor went to medical school in Iowa. How could he not know this? I took out my cell phone to show him the CDC page I had photographed IN SPANISH, and he literally pushed my hand away. He refused to look at the evidence that this disease was real. He then demanded that he examine me himself. He looked in my throat (without a popsickle stick or flashlight) for a grand total of two seconds. Then, he touched my stomach and remarked that I “had gas”. I asked him, “is that related to my sickness?” to which he replied with a curt “no”. Then he sat me down to talk to me about how all it was, was a bacterial infection. I haven’t had a bacterial infection in 5 years since my tonsils got taken out, and I told him this. Once again he used the phrase “you americans”, which he finished this time with “think every sore throat is Strep.”
I wanted to reply to him that no, I only know I had strep because doctors performed cultures and did tests to verify that, but he wouldn’t let me talk. He kept interrupting me and was incredibly condescending. I left his office minus 300 pesos, and with a new receipt for antibiotics. I was in tears three times, and he still didn’t give me the chance to talk.
I went home feeling anguished. If hand foot mouth is unknown here, maybe it doesn’t occur in Mexico, in which case, how could I have gotten it? I started to worry that I had a different, unknown bug. An unknown bug that’s doing very weird things to me– that’s much more frightening than hand foot mouth. I was worried all doctors in Mexico were like him, and I was scared to go and see another one. But as my symptoms and my pain progressed even further, I got desperate. That same night Maria Jose drove me back to Star Medica, where I saw two pediatricians. They examined me well, looking into my throat with a flashlight and tongue depressor. They looked at the sores on my hands and feet and said yes, that’s Manos Pies y Boca. They also said that there have been huge outbreaks of it here in the schools, and that they see it all the time. They gave me prescriptions for painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and mouthwash. They also didn’t charge me a dime (they also didn’t speak English, so I felt quite proud of myself for being able to explain my symptoms and express my gratitude).
So, I guess not all the doctors in Mexico are complete jackasses. But if I thought America was bad with overprescribing antibiotics- man, Mexico takes the CAKE.
I now have blisters covering every inch of the inside of my mouth, and they are extremely painful. The ones on my feet are pretty bad too because I have to walk on them- but the ones on my hands don’t really hurt much anymore. I feel very vindicated in knowing that at least in this one case, I was smarter than a doctor. Thank you, Google– what would I do without you?
Oh, and a side note: I’m fairly certain of where I picked this bug up. Two things about this virus are that 1) it takes about a week before you show symptoms, and 2) adults can carry/transmit it without ever showing symptoms themsevles. A lot of my friends here volunteer in schools, daycares, and charities that deal with children. And the hygiene situation in the schools is nothing short of ABYSMAL. One of the volunteers must have picked it up from the kids, and passed it along to me. So I didn’t get this in Playa, like everyone thinks. But hey, SCIENCE!– it’s not for everyone (I suppose).
Moral of the story? Doctors are not God. Go with your gut, you know yourself best. Even if everyone is telling you otherwise, listen to your instincts, and verify before putting poison in your body.