Dispatch from South America

by Robin Sparks

There are the plans you have for your journey, and the plans your journey has for you.

Things to do in San Rafael, Argentina:

1. Get an appendectomy.

We were watching the gauchos gallop into town when it was decided that I should see a doctor. I’d felt queasy all day, but, when it began to hurt when I breathed, I knew it was more than the bottle of Malbec wine we’d drunk the night before.

During the 30 mile ride on dirt roads to the hospital, I had time to think. I’d entered that travel place where you go from being captain of your itinerary, to tossing the itinerary out the window. Its very possibility keeps many would-be travelers at home, but it’s a place that travel writers secretly love to go.

The on-call doctor at the private clinic looked like he’d stepped off the set of General Hospital. He called the surgeon to come in, late Saturday night or no. As an interesting aside, each doctor from that point on, the lab doctor, Dr. Castro, the surgeon, was more Calvin Klein model-esque than the next. What are the odds? The only way to explain it is that in Argentina you get into medical school based on your looks.

The nurses have an entirely different set of requirements.

A handful of expatriates and a couple of Argentines, some of them strangers an hour earlier, had gathered in the examining room to help. There was Johnny from South Africa, who had survived 14 heart attacks at the age of 35. There were Annette and John, Brits who traveled the world on motorbikes before ending up in San Rafael to try their hands at farming, and there were Angel and Rosie, he Argentine, she Mexican, along with their daughter Candy. They’d recently moved to San Rafael, Argentina from Las Vegas. Did you get all that?

Fifteen-year old Candy was unflappable as my interpreter until they got to ”medical stuff”. Great. Argentines speak Castillano. I speak uh, Spanish. It was a Three Stooges comedy of mis-translation.

The surgeon checked me in for overnight observation, whereupon I paid $30 per day extra for the one air-conditioned patient room in the clinic. I couldn’t see how anyone could heal in this nearly 100 degree heat. Through the partially open doors of rooms up and down the hall, I’d seen visitors standing over beds, vigorously fanning patients. At the Policlinica patients are required to have a friend or family member stay in their room at all times to help with their basic care…an ingenious solution to health care costs, but a tricky one when you are a stranger in town.

As it turns out, my new friends fought over which one would remain in my room throughout the night.

Next morning the pain had subsided, so I figured I’d be heading home and was a bit embarrassed that I’d caused such a ruckus over nothing. The docs came in to make rounds, said a few words to each other, and suddenly I was being loaded onto a gurney and wheeled down the hall to surgery. I tried to talk Dr. Castro into letting me fly to Buenos Aires for the operation. He assured me that it wasn’t an option.

Under the operating light, they strapped me to a table, tied both my arms straight out at my sides, stuck IV needles into my arms and I lay there like Jesus Christ.

My last thoughts as the gas mask came down? A story I once read about a surgical patient who was paralyzed by the anesthesia but remained wide awake throughout the surgery, able to feel everything, but unable to let anyone know. I ran a quick inventory: Hearing? Yes. Sight? Yes. Speech? Nope. Sensation? No…Except, I discovered, my neck and head, which I began to wag violently back and forth with a look that I hoped shouted No, No! No! I’m not asleep yet! Your anesthesia isn’t working!…

The upside down face of the anesthesiologist came into focus. ”Robin?

”Fineeshed?” I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for ”Over.”

Ow. I’d been hit in the gut, hard. How much time had passed? I asked. (In my groggy post-surgical state, I spoke fluent Spanish). Thirteen minutes. Had it been my appendix? Yes. Had it burst? No.

”12 centimeters long!” someone announced as if I’d given birth to something wondrous. Which in a way, I guess I had. My appendix, an organ normally around 2 inches in length, had been found poking up into my chest cavity, a fully erect 7 inches. Yes, I’m proud.

The next morning, Dr. Novak, I mean Dr. Gonzales, stopped by my room, and after checking my stitches, said, ”You can put on your makeup now.” I chose to believe that he meant that my prognosis was good. Dr. Castro came by too, and announced that he’d made the scar small enough that I could still wear a bikini.

A few hours later, a nurse summoned my friend, Susan, out into the hall. She returned carrying a package wrapped neatly in white butcher paper. “What’s that?” I asked. “Your appendix.”

We left it sitting there on my nightstand until the next day when I summoned a nurse to please take it away to la basura.

”La postal?” she asked. ”No, no. Don’t mail it, throw it away!”

It may be a global world, but it’s still a babel world in lots of ways.

Two days later, and I’m back ”home” on the ranch surrounded by the warm people of San Rafael, Argentina and doing well, thanks to everyone here.


Robin Sparks is in Argentina as the new editor of EscapeArtist Travel Magaine (www.escapeartist.com) to be launched in April, 2006. She’ll be back in the Bay Area in April. In June Robin will join Larry Habegger in Turkey for their writing workshop, The Personal Travel Story. Check it out under the Journal link at Robin’s website www.Robinsparks.com.

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