Over the years I have gone to visit Mexican friends and relatives in the hospital and whenever I have done so, I have always found the patient in the company of a family member.
“In Mexico, anyone who lands in the hospital will always be accompanied day and night by a relative,” I was told.
“You mean the family member sleeps in the same room? Where?”
“A better quality private hospital will have a sofa in the room for this purpose, but less fancy hospitals provide nothing and the familiar may have to sleep on the floor.”
“Does the hospital provide food for the relative?”
“No, familiares have to fend for themselves, but many hospitals have cafeterias.”
My first reaction to the hospital helper phenomenon was rather negative. This, I figured, must be an extension of the “never leave a guest alone” experience I discovered on the very first day I visited Mexico many years ago. I learned then that whenever I was in somebody’s living room – no matter the reason or for whatever duration – somebody would always be with me, doing their best to make small talk, which is not easy if neither of you speak the same language. At some point, my “chaperone” would politely get up and leave, only to be replaced instantly by another family member, and a new round of small talk would begin.
So I supposed the hospital helper must be there for similar reasons. “If I was a patient in a hospital,” I told myself, “I would want peace and quiet, not hours of small talk.”
I’m from the United States and I remember arriving at hospitals there only to discover that visiting hours were over and that nothing on earth could persuade the receptionist to let me visit my loved one. But this I accepted, figuring the presence of a visitor could only interfere with the care provided by the doctors and nurses.
But recently, it was me going into hospital (for a double-hernia operation) and there was my Mexican wife and her family, planning who was going to stay with me day and night.
“No, no,” I insisted. “I don’t want to importune anybody. Let’s just allow the hospital to do its thing.”
“John, you don’t understand. This is not a quaint local custom. Mexican hospitals expect and want a relative to be present 24 hours a day.”
Now that threw me for a loop. I had imagined the hospital staff wincing at the logistical problems of all those non-patients roaming around the building at all hours. Instead, I was discovering that the hospital helper phenomenon was standard procedure in Mexico and I had better get with it.
So I did. My wife and some of her sisters would be at my side by day and a nephew would watch over me at night.
I’m happy to say I was successfully operated upon and when I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital bed with an IV needle in my arm. Late that night, I woke up feeling extremely thirsty and couldn’t see any drinking water around me. “No problem,” I told myself, “I’ll just ring for the nurse.”
Many hours earlier, that same nurse had showed me a little on-off switch only inches from my right arm. “Just press the switch to call me,” she said.
Press the switch I did, again and again and again, but nothing happened and no one came. Ah! I thought, what if I was bleeding to death?
In that moment I understood the reason for the hospital helper. “Hey Ivan! Wake up! Can you find me some drinking water?”
Actually, I was wrong because I was seeing the helper merely as an extra pair of hands. What a surprise I got when I fielded this subject to my friends via Facebook. I was overwhelmed by the unanimity of their responses.
“In the jargon we use in Mexican hospitals,” commented Dr. Margarita Ibarra, a nephrologist, “these people are called cuidadores (caregivers) and a visit to the Hospital Civil, for example, will quickly provide you with hundreds of testimonies on the important role these people play in getting their loved ones through a traumatic experience. Numerous articles have been published in psychology journals about the heavy physical and emotional burdens borne by these ‘unsung heroes,’ especially if their dear ones are suffering from chronic diseases.”
One of those people suffering from a chronic disease was Juan José Amezola, who told me “I could write a book about my case. They diagnosed me with both cancer of the colon and appendicitis to boot, and for all my examinations, appointments, studies and consultations, my wife was there at my side, like a guardian angel. She took notes, managed my schedule, everything, while I typically went about with my head in the clouds. She was not only my caregiver, she was also a blessing to my hospital roommates and, in fact, to the whole floor, because many of those people had come from far away and their cuidadores couldn’t stay 24 hours a day, but my wife was always helping everyone, orienting them around the building, finding them food, talking to both the patients and their family members, sharing photos, recipes, anecdotes and especially ... smiles.”
As for the origins of this practice of family members assisting their sick relatives, Sandrita Cervantes points out that most Mexican hospitals have a great many patients and far too few nurses to care for them. “The other day, at the Social Security hospital,” she says, “I found one doctor and a dozen nurses trying to care for 150 patients during their shift, and in these public hospitals a patient has to wait three months to see a specialist! So the role of the Caregivers is very important. What do they do? They make sure the patients take their medicines and eat their food; they help them change clothes and use the chamber pot; they clean the room, etcetera, and I’m talking about a very big etcetera! It’s an exhausting job which brings you very close to your relative and makes you reevaluate life, health and home. It makes you see the great suffering that sickness brings upon humanity and shows you how vulnerable we are. Life in a hospital is hard and sad, but to it your cuidador brings dedication, gentleness and love.”
And that, I discovered, makes all the difference. How is it the world’s hospitals have become so much like auto repair shops?
Viva México, for bringing a forgotten element, love, back to hospitals and health care.