Being Sick in the Philippines, Part II

Hello, dear readers! The big news since I last posted is that I’m now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! For the last three months, I’ve been merely a trainee, but on Friday, I took an oath and swore in as a volunteer. Now I’m at my permanent site in Nueva Vizcaya, ready to start my job.

Almost immediately after I arrived here, I came down with bronchitis again. That was a little discouraging, but it does mean that I’ve had my first experience visiting a doctor here in the Philippines. It was different from a doctor visit in the US in a few interesting ways, so I thought I’d share.

The nearest Peace Corps-approved clinic is about ten minutes away, in the busy commercial district of the neighboring town. It did not look impressive from the outside–a dingy, open-fronted building that my nanay later described to our neighbor as, “medyo maliit at madilim,” fairly small and dark. She had called ahead to let them know that we were coming, although I don’t think appointments are standard here, and they got us in right away.

After they weighed me, I sat in a plastic chair beside the reception desk while they took my blood pressure. (Incidentally, I discovered that I’ve lost a little over six pounds since I came to the Philippines. It’s a trend I wouldn’t mind continuing.) The nurse handed me my paperwork, with a plastic, numbered clip to show when it was our turn. The doctor saw us almost immediately, but I’m not sure if that’s because we called ahead, or because I’m an American, or just because it was our turn.

We met the doctor in his office. I’m fortunate that Peace Corps has had a presence in the area for quite some time, so he knew exactly what was going on, even though I was a bit lost. He asked where I was from, and was excited to hear I was from Colorado, because he’d just gotten back from a conference in Denver. While we talked to him, there were intermittent gunshots outside the window that made me jump, but neither the doctor nor my nanay even seemed to notice them. (I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it must have been some kind of training.)

He gently reprimanded me for discontinuing the inhaler the PCMO had put me on for maintenance, and told me I really need to use it every day even if I’m breathing fine. Then he listened to my lungs, and ordered a CBC to see whether I had an infection and might need an antibiotic. I got my paperwork back, and my nanay guided me back out of his office to the only other room in the clinic, the lab.

The lab was staffed by one harried nurse, who seemed to be operating about four pieces of equipment at once. I was expected her to draw blood, which I hate, but she just pricked my finger and collected the blood in a little tube. We sat there and waited for a few minutes while she set my blood to analyze, finished a test on someone’s urine, and took blood from another patient. Then she handed us the results, and after a very short wait, we went back into the doctor’s office, where he looked at the results, told me it was probably viral, and prescribed an expectorant to help clear out my lungs.

The facility has an arrangement with the Peace Corps, so we didn’t have to pay–we were done just like that. The whole thing–examination, lab work, results, and interpretation–took maybe half an hour. I don’t know what I expected from the Philippines’ medical system, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be less frustrating than in the US. (Admittedly, with Peace Corps picking up the bill, most of the frustrating parts, like wrangling insurance companies or paying out of pocket, are eliminated automatically.)

Anyway, now I’m dutifully taking my medication–even the stupid inhaler that makes me shake like a drug addict–and drinking lots of hot kalamansi juice. Today was a holiday (there are SO MANY holidays here), so no school, but I should be ready to go back to school tomorrow, no problem.

Being Sick in the Philippines

No pictures with this post, I’m afraid. I took a lot of really lovely photos while I was on my site visit, but because of the health issues I’m about to describe, I won’t be able to return to the site. It was a really great site, and I really enjoyed the people there. So, the photos are a little bit heartbreaking for me right now. Maybe later, after I see how awesome my new site is.

Peace Corps Philippines encourages host families to treat the trainees or volunteers they host as a member of the family, and that’s certainly what my host family has done. They do treat me like an (admittedly very spoiled) daughter. I came home from my site visit with bronchitis; my family was distraught. (Also, I suspect, a little relieved that I didn’t contract it under their watch; they take good care of me.)

It’s been quite a production. My host mother hovers off to the side when the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) comes to check up on me, and reminds me to take my antibiotics and use the nebulizer. My host brother–who studies culinary arts–puts a mug of hot kalamansi juice in my hands before bed. (Kalamansi is a local citrus that looks like a tiny lime, has orange flesh, and tastes a bit like a lemon.) They make me stay upstairs and shut my door when they’re frying fish, “in case you smell the smoke.” (The bronchitis was triggered by smoke at my site.) And the afternoons that I’ve been home resting, they hand-deliver my afternoon snacks to my bed.

Aside: In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Filipinos also have snacks, meryenda in the morning and the afternoon. To an American eye, it’s hard to distinguish between these “snacks” and a meal–a full plate of spaghetti or pancit, the local variation on stir-fried noodles, makes a typical meryenda.

Here is the difference: meals have rice, meryenda doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much food is on your plate, if there’s no rice, it isn’t a meal. At my recent site visit, the principal of the school took us out for lunch. I attempted to order a chicken sandwich with fries, but my companions simply wouldn’t allow it–I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I was there to eat lunch, and lunch had to contain rice.

This point is essentially non-negotiable. The only exception I’ve observed is that occasionally, when the family is too busy or tired to cook a full meal, they’ll obtain a big batch of pancit, and eat it with slices of white bread. I once distressed my host family by eating the pancit before the bread was purchased–they never were convinced that I’d eaten dinner that evening.

I think most people think “hardship” when they think “Peace Corps”. But I have to say, given a choice between getting bronchitis as a private citizen in America, or getting bronchitis as a Peace Corps trainee in the Philippines, I’d choose the latter any day. They aren’t joking when they talk about Philippine hospitality.

(Incidentally, I’d also like to add that Peace Corps medical care is top-notch. I’m on an intense regimen of asthma medications, and I’m recovering much faster than I do in the US, where my strategy for dealing with bronchitis is to stay in bed and drink a lot of peppermint tea. And the PCMO has come to my house twice, and texts me at least once a day asking about my breathing. Bronchitis is fairly routine for me, so this would all feel very silly, except for the fact that it’s actually working. What do you know, when you take medicine, you feel better!)