Getting to know the public health system in Guatemala

I sat in the waiting room of the Centro de Salud, the local health centre, in Livingston. From the open door, I could see the sea. A bunch of Garifunas had gathered around a nearby bench and started drumming.

The waiting room of the health centre was full of Mayan women with little children, all dressed up in traditional clothing. Throw in a pinch of latinas, a pair of Garifunas and one gringa and you get the picture.

What is dengue?

Two black guys in the middle of the room stood up. They carried posters and demanded everyone’s attention.

“Who knows what is dengue?” the young man asked enthusiastically.

No one seemed eager to answer. To be honest, the question was a little bit too obvious. In Indonesia, dengue was quite a common disease among foreigners and locals alike. A tropical fever transmitted by mosquitoes, dengue puts you to bed for days. Victims of dengue develop a high fever and grow so weak that even a trip from the living room to the kitchen can take hours. There is no treatment – you just have to sweat it out – and the only way to prevent dengue is by using repellent or wearing long-sleeved shirts. This information was stored deep inside of my brain- I knew that it could happen to anyone and I was ready.

The young guy in the waiting room still waited for an answer. Seeing that his approach wasn’t fruitful, he turned directly to a lady in her 30s. “What is dengue?” The woman shrugged and shook her head- she had no idea. Only the third person knew it was a fever…

Next question, “What is zika?” The man expected an answer from a pregnant lady but she just shook her head. My body was covered with cold sweat. Even I, living on another continent, had heard about the risk of zika in Central-America and how dangerous it could be for pregnant women. That’s when I started to understand the problems in the local public health system in Guatemala.

Waiting rooms

I sat in the Centro de Salud with symptoms I had never experienced before. Unable to take a deep breath, I had chest pain and felt a weird tingling sensation in my legs and arms.

I am not the biggest fan of doctors. Usually, I only visit them when I’m really in trouble and cannot get better on my own. I’m definitely not the kind of person who would run to a doctor in a foreign country. There are surely better things to do with my time than spending it in waiting rooms, right?

In Guatemala, I have been quite unlucky and have suffered all kinds of health problems. Luckily, most of them have passed without needing a doctor. But the weird symptoms, which already started in Belize, didn’t go away by themselves. They went worse. One afternoon I felt how half of my face went numb and then half of my body went numb. I felt I didn’t have enough air and there was a pain in my chest. Freaking out, I decided it was best to check a doctor and find out what the hell was wrong with me. It turned out it was not all that easy.

No inglés

Firstly, not a single soul in the Centro de Salud spoke English. Trying to explain my tingling hands in Spanish, the doctor suspected lice. Even though I’m no doctor, I still doubted that this was my problem. After a week of washing dutifully with a special shampoo that I got for free from the doctor, I decided to ditch it.

Worse than my nonexistent Spanish skills was that, differently from European doctors, medical personnel in Guatemala treated symptoms rather than the disease itself. So for the pain in my chest, they gave me a shot for stomach problems. For the tingling I got a shampoo, for the half body paralysis I got something for nerves and so on. On top of everything, I got a shot of painkillers.

The doctor visit was over after five minutes and I limped back to the hotel.

“Get a diagnosis”

Relaxing on the hammocks of our cute guesthouse, Tom read through the list of medications that were supposed to make me feel better and shook his head, “That doesn’t make any sense. They just want to stuff you with medicines without knowing what’s the matter with you.”

I hoped that if I took all the pills I would feel better, but my condition didn’t improve. In fact, it went worse. I felt more tired. Some days, I just lay on the bed with my tingling limbs, trying to ignore the pain in my chest. In addition to the tingling, my hands and legs started to ache as well. There was nothing I could do about it, I needed help.

After multiple calls to my health insurance company, I went back to the same clinic, knowing well that public health, in spite of being free, was not the best in this country. But I followed the guidelines of the health insurance worker who just repeated the same thing, “Go to the nearest hospital and get a diagnosis.”


This time, a neat young lady with sand-coloured hair and a direct communication style sat on the other side of the table. She didn’t even attempt to speak English with me. “Spanish? Portuguese?” asked the Cuban doctor and when I said no, she took out her phone and our conversation continued with Google Translate. She decided to go deeper into my problem to find out what was the matter with me. She dove into my case with passion, asking about my previous health problems and the medical history of my parents.

One visit quickly multiplied and I found myself sitting in the waiting room more than I particularly liked. I gave blood, had all kinds of X-rays done, took a boat to the bigger city for EKG. The Cuban doctor discussed my case with her husband, also a doctor, and with her colleagues.

I still had pain in my chest in the evenings. Once, I even took a tuk-tuk to the health centre late at night to get my heart checked. I managed to make a male doctor with rectangular glasses quite angry by refusing the stomach medication that he wanted to inject directly into my veins. Finally, he told me to go. I was not going to die tonight.

Public health system in Guatemala means visits to these kinds of pharmacies.

Return to Europe?

I was on the verge of giving up. What could I do? I couldn’t travel, I was only running from one medical procedure to another. Maybe it was better to pack my bags and return to Europe?

Until one day I returned to the doctor and she announced to me that she had a diagnosis. I had a high cholesterol and something else that I didn’t really understand, but that required vitamin B shots. Folding the paper with medications and diagnosis in two, I thanked the doctor and left. I did what she said. I still don’t know what my problem was, but one day it was gone just as suddenly as it had started.

3 Replies to “Getting to know the public health system in Guatemala”

  1. Michaela Fisher

    I had a weird 24 hr high fever and delirium in BZ. Right when we were trying to get me out of bed to go to Dr I snapped out of it, as if nothing was ever wrong.
    My last trip to BZ and Guatemala I got a horrible uti. Local asked if I peed in ocean. Huh, my dear, I had no idea. By the time I got back to States I was septic.
    Next time I will travel with several antibiotics.

    • Anete Kruusmägi

      That’s so weird! Did you ever find out what was wrong with you? Antibiotics are definetely a good thing to pack. Do you know if they sell any general antibiotics in BZ/Guatemala without prescription? I remember buying them in Indonesia for uti.

  2. Pingback: Snapshots of Guatemalan life: gunshots, Italian drama and a health nut on a bus – Volcano Love

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