At Hospital México, the cardiac ward provides bonding

“Chapulines de Hospital México.” That is what they told me to call them.

Dina said this one morning soon after I had arrived in the cardiology ward to join five other women, all Costa Rican. Like me, they were waiting to be correctly diagnosed, treated, if necessary, and released.

On my first night, I was trying desperately to get some sleep in spite of the chatter and laughter. How, I wondered, could such a bawdy bunch of good friends have found themselves in the same ward at the same time? I sat up in bed and said, “Ladies, please. One at a time! You sound like the Ladies of View.” And fell back on my pillow. They didn’t understand a word of my English but after a burst of laughter, they began to whisper, and I slept.

In Costa Rica a chapuline is a young, rowdy street urchin.

As the days wore on I found out they had been strangers before coming to the hospital. The star of the group was Carmen, slight and chatty. She had a radio and sang along with the crooners in a sweet pure voice in perfect pitch. That is, when she wasn’t making others laugh. I asked her if she had sung professionally. “In another life, long ago,” she said. Carmen is 92.

She had dozens of visitors, besides her daughter, Vicky, who was with her almost 24 hours a day. Carmen looked in her 70s and Vicky, who was 73, looked to be in her 50s.

Sometimes it seems that a hard early life makes for longevity and good humor. Carmen’s husband died after nine years of marriage. He left her with six children and little means of survival. She worked at two jobs to support her family and never remarried. Obviously lots of love went into that mixture. Carmen acted like she was having the time of her life, even here in bed. I think she felt that way wherever she was. The staff and doctors were charmed by her.

During my week’s stay, all but one of the chapulines left. Ina was the exception in this happy lot. She seemed permanently depressed, and her rare smiles were strained and brief. Mostly she sat on her bed and stared at nothing. I, as well as the others tried to involve her in the pleasures and comedy of the moment, but she always relapsed into her melancholy, convinced the doctors would not operate because she was poor. She and Carmen were very different models for this onlooker.

Lately there have been numerous critiques of local social security hospitals and of Costa Rica as a ‘paradise.’ A. M. Costa Rica staff generally agreed that Hospital Mexico is the best of the group, and I agree. I am still not convinced that one gets any better care (maybe more frills) in the private hospitals here. I know I would choose any of the local social security hospitals over the newest and most expensive private one in Costa Rica.

And as for whether or not Costa Rica is a real paradise,’well, like beauty, I think paradise is in the eye of the beholder or at least in what the beholder thinks is important and holds dear. All Adam and Eve had was a lovely garden and their own ignorance. According to the Bible, that was paradise.

For some it is the idealized version of their own country. For others it is a corrupt-free perfectly run country with little or no crime and efficient people at your beck and call when you need them . . . and no potholes.

For those of us who really, really hate war with all of its collateral damage and after effects, and truly appreciate the laid back, friendly character of most Costa Ricans, along with the temperate weather and the easily accessible beauties of nature (which we want to preserve), Costa Rica is a paradise.

Add to that, medical care that is friendly and attentive and won’t bankrupt you once you leave the hospital, it doesn’t get much better. The chapulines are icing on the cake. I think Elizabeth Taylor, a woman whose physical suffering the world knew little about, would have felt very much at home with them and here.

Happy Birthday, Justin!

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