Posted by: Project MicroMundo | November 5, 2010

Families Pay for Doctors’ Mistakes

While Ronnie has been busy with her work in the Elderly Care Program, Steph and I have been working to get another program off of the ground: The Family Aid Program. We’ve seen no shortage of injustice, and some of the toughest stories to handle have been those of medical malpractice. In a place where doctors rarely have to answer for their actions and the costs of legal recourse are prohibitively high, medical mistakes can turn a family’s life completely upside-down.

Baby Miguel at the clinic

When Petronila Sajuin-Sajuin brought her two-month old son, Miguel, to the Centro de Salud (the public health center that is the only medical care within reach for many poor Pana residents), she knew there was something wrong–Miguel was very sick and was having trouble breathing. You might think this would be serious enough to warrant a careful medical examination, but the doctor at the centro de salud did just the opposite. We don’t know why he brushed Miguel’s case aside, but the he certainly didn’t give the sick baby the care he needed: he send Miguel home with some Diclofenaco, a cheap pain reliever similar to Tylenol.
Not surprisingly, Miguel got worse. Within two days, he was on the verge of death. With the help of Mayan Families, Petronila got Miguel admitted to a private clinic, but it was almost too late – he had bronchopneumonia, and needed oxygen to breathe. He began suffering from convulsions, and for a while the prognosis wasn’t good.

After almost a week of uncertainty, Miguel finally stabilized, and is now recovering (and receiving free follow-up care from the doctors at Rancho Grande). Still, the negligence of the doctor at the centro de salud and the resulting emergency care have left Petronila and her husband, who earns small, unsteady wages carrying loads in the market, with a Q750 ($94) medical bill, in addition to the two small mouths they were already struggling to feed.

Petronila with Miguel in the hospital

While Petronila and her husband could technically sue the doctor, they can’t afford the legal costs, and corruption within the system makes a favorable outcome anything but certain. They will likely be dealing with the medical and financial repercussions of that doctor’s actions far into the future, while the doctor has probably already forgotten the baby he almost killed. (Read more about Miguel or donate to his recovery here.)

Miguel isn’t the only patient who has been endangered by medical malpractice in Pana this month. 30-year old Elyda Lopez Mendez was pregnant with her second child when doctors found a stone in her pancreas. They scheduled an operation to remove it, but instead of making one cut (as planned), the doctor made three. The last of these cuts went so deep that bile began to spill out. The doctor either failed to recognize or failed to disclose that something had gone wrong during the surgery. After the operation, he sent Elyda home, telling her that she and the baby were fine. But once home, Elyda’s condition worsened.

It took traveling to three hospitals in three different cities before she finally found a doctor that could help her. The new doctors worked quickly to get Elyda out of danger, but also delivered some tragic news: the negligence of the first doctor had affected not just Elyda but her unborn child as well. The baby had died during the initial surgery, contrary to the what the first doctor had said. After a few days of follow up care, Elyda had to leave the hospital and return home in order to avoid the costs of a prolonged hospital stay.

Elyda confined to her bed.

Elyda is confined to her bed at home, trying to recover from her surgeries.

She is currently confined to her bed, while three tubes in her abdomen drain bile and various other types of waste from her body. She will have to return to the doctor soon, and it is certain that she will eventually need another surgery, but it still isn’t clear just how much other treatment she will need, or how she will pay for it. For now, her husband Marco is by her side, and the couple is trying to cope with both the stress of the medical bill and the loss of their unborn child.

Before the surgery, Elyda and Marco had enjoyed a stable life. They had one child, a seven-year old named Josias, and lived well within their means. Marcos earned enough to afford the small family a comfortable existence, put food on the table, and pay for their son’s education. But the failed surgery has put the family thousands of dollars (that’s dollars, not quetzals) in debt—a staggering amount to a family in Guatemala. But with the hospital refusing to take responsibility and a lawsuit out of the question, there is little that Marco and Elyda can do except pay for the treatment any way they can, and try to get their lives back. (Read more about Elyda or donate to help her here.)

Elyda with her husband, Marcos, and son Josias

This tragedy underscores how quickly even the most hardworking or forward-planning parents can find their lives suddenly thrown into chaos.

Of course, not all malpractice takes such dramatic forms. Sometimes it can be as simple as a doctor dismissing an elderly person, assuming that the symptoms of a serious illness are merely part of getting older. Or it can be as subtle as a doctor only checking part of the issue, being too rushed to do a thorough examination. Though the dismissive, just-take-these-pills-and-go-home attitude is shockingly common (Miguel wasn’t the only Mayan Families client this week to be given diclofenacol and sent away, only to discover a serious illness), it is not solely the fault of the doctors. Public health clinics like the Centro de Salud are often pushing scarce resources to the limit, and find themselves understaffed, underfunded, and without the medicines and equipment they need. The treatment at private clinics provides a higher-quality alternative, but that expensive option is out of reach for most of the people we’ve been working with.

While some of the causes of medical negligence are obvious, the solution is less simple. In the next few weeks, we aren’t going to be able to do much about the systemic failings of Guatemalan health care. All we can do is help where we can, and make sure that innocent people’s lives aren’t ruined by problems they did not create and can’t control. If you have been looking for a family to help, please consider one of the families on the Family Aid blog. There, you can read more about Miguel, Elyda, and many others.  These families are in desperate need, and any amount of support would help–please consider a sponsorship or donation. Even a small amount could make a big difference.

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