Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Adventure in an Ambulance

I spent most of Monday inside of an ambulance.

Here in Bolivia, ambulances go to schools to do check ups for the children.  In the morning, we examined almost 100 children while sitting on a small bench inside of an ambulance with each child moving through in assembly line form.  First, they were weighed and their heights were measured.  Then they saw either me or Dr. Carlos, the attending doctor I was following.  I asked them their name and if anything hurt.  If so, I asked about medicines that they were taking and many times we dispensed a box of vitamins, a few Tylenol pills, mucolytics, etc....all based on what a 5 year old reported (No parents involved).  One worried 5 year old asked me, "Am I ok, doctora?", to which I laughed and told her that she was.  Then she scooted down the stretcher in front of the dentist who put fluoride on her poor cavity-filled teeth.  One thing's for sure - these children have LOTS of deep, terrible cavities.  Only 1 of the 90+ kids we saw had none. 

Later that day, I found myself in the back of an ambulance taking care of an older man who needed to be transported to his home in Copacabana.  This trip is a 3 hour drive from La Paz.  The ambulance staff from Arco Iris was asked to help with the transport, as he was under hospice care and desired to be in his own home.  I thought I was going along only for the ride.  Little did I know that I would be in the BACK of the ambulance, attempting to keep things from falling and tubes from flying out of this man, while suctioning his nasogastric secretions every 30 minutes and keeping his head straight on the stretcher. 

We left La Paz with sirens screaming and lights flashing, weaving in and out of trucks and cars, going up and down hills, around curves....over bumps....  I can't describe this well enough.  I tried so hard not to throw up...and thankfully was successful.  We weaved up into El Alto, which has to be one of the dirtiest cities I've ever seen.  People, cars, dogs, fumes, children, and trucks were everywhere!  We dodged people and cars while racing over speedbump after speedbump (they use these here I think in leiu of stopsigns...they're brutal!).    I thought to myself, "Never in a million years would I have imagined myself in this situation!"   Finally we got to flat ground, and the view opened up into this picture below - the beautiful Andes.

The next best part of the trip came when we arrived to Tiquini (I think?).  This town is split into two parts by Lake Titicaca, which is a huge lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia.  The road we were on dead ended at the lake and a big flat boat with large wooden planks awaited us (see below).  As I wondered what was happening, I noticed other vehicles on these things, moving across the lake.  Next thing I knew, we drove onto the boat (carefully), and 2 men grabbed very long wooden sticks to push us off of land.  Then one of the men cranked up what looked like a speed boat motor and we slowly inched across the lake.  The man below in the picture has been doing this job for almost 50 years.  The second picture is the view from the middle of the journey across the lake. 

With gastric secretions on my ungloved hands and a patient who was breathing harder with an almost empty oxygen tank, we successfully made it to Copacabana.  We pulled up to the house and carried him inside, only to find that in a few minutes after being home, he would pass away.  Sadly, we said goodbye to the family and went to the "tourist" area for dinner.  I had trout with potatoes and rice (of course, the carb duo of Bolivia).  We then grabbed some pasancalles (HUGE popcorns that are chewy and sweet - que bueno!) and made our trek back to La Paz.  We almost missed the ferry back across the lake!  It closes at 9pm, and we arrived at 9:20 - thank goodness for Bolivian time!  (Bolivian time = at least 20 minutes late).  After hours of sitting sideways, listening to Flamenco music, eating huge popcorns, and being stopped and questioned by police (standard procedure on the roads - no worries!), we made it back home to Calacoto (my neighborhood). 

What a day!


  1. Oh my goodness, Bek! What a day indeed! (Those popcorns sound yummy!) love ya! Jenny

  2. Sounds like a movie! I'm sorry your patient passed away, but you could take solace in the fact that he just wanted to be @ home in his final hours, and you helped make that happen just in time..

  3. Wow. That was a super intense adventure... I'm so amazed and impressed at everything that you're experiencing and helping with -- it's awesome! I'm sorry about your patient too, but Sarah's right, you did help get him home.

  4. Bek, how much do you know about hospice care in Bolivia? My mom is under hospice care here in the US, but she wants to go back home to La Paz. I have not lived there in many years, so I don't anything about hospice there.

    I SO MISS "giant popcorn" ...