I started coughing one evening. Being a teacher, I’m always talking and I usually get sore throats or even laryngitis. In Peru I would always get antibiotics or a shot of Megacilin and that was enough to stop the cough and itchy throat.
I was in Sao Paulo and went to a drugstore on a mission to get antibiotics. “Antibioticos, por favor.” I assumed the word would be the same in Portuguese. The clerk said something in Portuguese, which I didn’t understand, then I started using sign language (not the real sign language that deaf people use, just moving my hands in an attempt to get the message across). I touched my throat, tos, antibioticos, duele, algo fuerte, por favor. The clerk showed my a piece of paper and I understood that I couldn’t get them without a prescription. “I should have bought some in Lima”, I regretted.
I still needed to alleviate the pain so I got over-the-counter medicine knowing it wouldn’t really help. I bought a bottle of cough syrup, lozenges and antihistamine, as the clerk suggested. After two days of taking that medication, my cough hadn’t stopped (as expected). It got worse, my throat was tomato red and I would always wake up coughing in the middle of the night. Lying down was an impossible task for me to perform since every time I tried to do it, the cough would come back stronger.
“Should I go to the hospital?”, I wondered. I’d heard the horror stories about people going for a cold and leaving with COVID. “What if I get infected with COVID?”, “What if it IS COVID”?, “How will I communicate with the doctor if I don’t speak Portuguese?”, I pondered for a while. I’d read about clinics trying to take advantage of tourists by charging more than they’re supposed to for simple procedures. I decided not to go.
The funny thing was I felt great during the day and terrible at night. My cough seemed to have a biological clock that activated after my body got ready for deep sleep. Every morning I thought “why go to the doctor now?, I’m feeling better!”. Every night I would be like “I’m going to the doctor now, it’s getting worse”.
By the fourth night I couldn’t take it anymore, I regretted not going in the morning, it was three in the morning and on top of all the very good reasons I had for not going to the hospital, I added the risk of bumping into drug addicts, prostitutes or thieves, I’d seen them from my balcony, they always came out at night.
Off we were, my husband and I walking down Republica Avenue heading to a hospital that had good reviews. After walking for about five blocks, we finally saw the building. It was a private hospital and looked fancy and reliable… too bad it was only for people who had insurance there. The security guard pointed at the corner and said there was another hospital within walking distance.
This other hospital looked like a public one, it reminded me of Hospital Loayza in Peru, it was old and the furniture inside it looked that it’d been there since the place was built. Little did I care about the furniture or the building, I needed a doctor, so I went in. There was a lady at the reception. I asked where I could get a doctor and she said no with her hands and closed her little window in front of her all without making eye contact. Not a good sign.
The guy next to her was assigned to note down my clinic history. I wrote my name and last name in a piece of paper and handed it to him. He was much nicer and had a smile on his face. He wasn’t wearing the mask properly-he had it under the nose-and I thought how crazy that was coming from a staff member in a hospital.
He handed me a paper slip and sent me to another area to wait for a doctor. There was only one other person waiting in the same room, I scanned her carefully waiting to see if she had COVID symptoms. I didn’t want to get infected. She never coughed, apparently she was waiting for someone who was already been seen by a doctor.
What do you do when you’re waiting? Of course, you torture yourself and watch the clock every few minutes, and that’s exactly what I did. The ticking of the clock was a constant reminder that I had a bus to Rio de Janeiro at 6:30am and that if I wasn’t called in the following 10 minutes, I would surely miss my bus. I’d waited for 45 minutes before a doctor finally said my name out loud. I jumped out of my seat immediately and said the only phrase I know in Portuguese Não falo Portuguese.
The doctor led me to the consultation room. Some of the words were similar to Spanish and I understood instructions like open your mouth, breath in, breath out, say ah. The doctor was a nice young man who made sure I understood what he was doing and why he was doing it. “Now I’m going to take your pulse, now I’m going to use a pulse oximeter to measure the oxygen saturation level of your blood, now I’m going to do such and such in order to detect such and such”. He made me feel at ease and looked like someone I could trust.
He prescribed Amoxicillin, Loratadine, Prednisona… and a COVID test. He said the symptoms I had might or might not be related to COVID, that the new variant had totally different symptoms compared to the other variants and that taking the test was an extra measure just to rule out the virus.
The tough part, paying for the service
Me: How much is the consultation?
Doctor: (frowning) What was that?
Me: How much, money, how much do I have to pay? where do I pay?
Doctor: Ohhhh, no, no, no. You don’t pay, the government pays.
(Maybe I wasn’t listening well. Maybe the language barrier didn’t help him get the message across.)
Me: You mean I don’t have to pay?
Doctor: No, you don’t have to pay anything (using body language to make sure I got it). As a matter of fact, the medicine is also free provided that you go to this specific drugstore.
I wanted to hug the doctor, the receptionist who didn’t use his mask properly, the angry receptionist who ignored me, the security guard and all the staff in the hospital. I thought I was a tourist who had no right to health care. Little did I know. I was deeply moved by the way I was treated in that hospital in Sao Paulo, like a human being. I imagined a scenario where the same had happened to me in another country, like in the US, where they would have happily stripped me from all my life savings in exchange for a consultation… so much for a first world country.
I started this trip thinking Sao Paulo was an incredibly dangerous city that I could get robbed anytime but the city decided to prove me wrong, it showed me kindness, good hearted doctors devoted to helping people when they need it the most. It’s a relief to be living in a country where health care isn’t denied to anyone, I am profoundly grateful to Brazil for having helped me when I needed it the most. Thank you Brazil.