Of Myths and Medicine

By Rachel Hardy

Turns out everything I thought I knew about medical clinics in a developing nation was wrong.

They’re not sanitary. Their practices aren’t up-to-date. The nurses reuse needles. You can’t find the medicines you need. Doctors aren’t real MDs. You’ll end up more sick than when you went in. Though it’s embarrassing to admit this occidental perspective, with preconceived notions like these, one can’t help but be petrified of getting sick in another country.

So what do I do? I get sick in another country.

Consider it research towards the abolishment of misconceptions, I guess. Preconceived notions can only be combatted by acknowledging them and digging below what seems to be. Why do these notions exist in the first place? Is it a lack of information? Fear of the unknown? An isolated bad experience that is blown out of proportion? Armed with questions and cough syrup, I caught pneumonia and set out to debunk the medical myths.

My methodology? One day, three medical facilities. After orders for blood testing to diagnose why I had had a fever, chest pain and difficulty breathing for days on end, I arrived at Auroville’s Kailash clinic early one morning, referral paper in hand. The small, sari-wearing nurse opened the needle in front of me, put a tourniquet on my arm and hit my vein on the first try. Two vials later and arm in the air, I was done and sent on my way.

Since nothing had been a cause for alarm during my first medical visit and I felt the issue of medical care needed more investigation, I decided to notch it up a bit and test out another facility. Mid-afternoon I was taken to the Auroville Health Center after my fever spiked to a glorious 102˚F, inducing delirium and extreme fatigue. The doctor examined me and suggested I expedite the results of my blood test and get a chest x-ray at a hospital in Pondicherry; he feared I had pneumonia.

The Pondicherry Medical Mission? It was my best research break yet! An hour later, I walked through the large glass doors of the hospital into a large, modern reception area. Nurses in blue and white salwar kameez scrubs flit around the hospital like workers bees in a hive. A man in a traditional skirt was pushed in a wheelchair to an examination room. Women in beautiful saris lingered in waiting rooms. Though the visuals were different, the structure was the same; this was a place where sick people came to get well.

After a consultation with a general practitioner, a chest x-ray and a couple naps on whichever exam bed was available—research must include testing the equipment, right?—I sat in the pulmonologist’s office. Thumbing through the results of my blood test and viewing my x-ray, the doctor confirmed I did have pneumonia and that if I chose not to be admitted, I needed bed rest and strong antibiotics.

I decided to throw him a curveball; what would he say to my medicinal allergies? As the pulmonologist wrote my prescriptions, I added, “Oh, and I’m allergic to penicillin and sulfa drugs.” Raising his eyes from his prescription pad, he stoically replied, “We haven’t used sulfa in India in about thirty years.”

Oh. Well, then.

So after extensive research, a solid diagnosis and about ten prescriptions later, my conclusions were in: one could get sick in a developing nation and get top-quality, reliable health care. While there may be some interesting exchanges due to language barriers—I once told a Ugandan doctor I had been constantly burping only to have him ask minutes later if I had been belching often—the experiences I have had with clinics in developing nations have been extremely positive, and, well, extremely beneficial to my health. After careful observation, I’ve never doubted the knowledge of the health professional treating me. I’ve never caught a counter infection. I’ve always been stuck with fresh needles opened in front of me. Antibiotics I’ve been given have been up-to-date, modern medicines. And in fact, every time I frequent a medical clinic in a developing nation, I always end up getting better.

So while the practices may differ—I balked when I first received a prescription in a small, nondescript paper bag or paid the equivalent of three euros for an afternoon in the Pondicherry hospital—the care is the same. After digging below my preconceived notions about medical care in the developing world, my research shows that I have nothing to fear and that the misconceptions about medical facilities are just that—misconceptions.

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