By Monica Rix Paxson.
I recently wrote about receiving emergency treatment in Mexico on Christmas Day. As you may recall, that all worked out well. But little did I dream that five months later I’d be seeking emergency treatment again, this time for a scorpion sting.
I just looked at a map that shows the range of scorpions and it looks like they are all over the USA, Mexico, Central and South America. Only Canada seems to be scorpion-free although I must confess I never saw one in Illinois in all the years I lived there. But like the Southwestern US, there are plenty of them where I live in the mountains of central Mexico.
The scorpions here tend to be small and reddish, maybe 3 to 7 centimeters (about an inch or an inch and a half) typically, and our local variety isn’t considered life threatening. But they do end up in the house, and it is recommended that you shake out towels and clothing before using them and shake out your shoes.
In my house they seem to like the kitchen best, and sometimes there will be one in the sink when I wake up. So, I should have known better than to reach into the sink to remove a couple of plates I’d left there overnight. Ouch! There was a sharp burning pain on my first knuckle. I shook my hand and looked, but there wasn’t much to see. It just hurt like hell. I didn’t even have to lift the plates to know what had happened. In a moment of carelessness I’d been stung by a scorpion. Now I’d have to take quick action.
While there are almost 2,000 species of scorpions, only 30 or 40 have venom strong enough to kill a person. However, the greater threat is having an allergic reaction and ensuing anaphylactic shock. So it is best to act conservatively and get immediate medical attention. And because scorpion stings are fairly common around here, I was prepared with an antihistamine that I took immediately. The doctors who treated me pointed out, the antihistamine won’t really solve the potential problem, but it can delay the effects of an allergic reaction long enough to get you to more serious treatment, so I always keep them on hand.
The town I live in is so small that it doesn’t have a hospital. We could have made the trip to the city that’s about 30 or 40 minutes away, but we decided against that in favor of a small public clinic that we’d seen many times before but never been inside. Our reasoning was that they probably get a lot of scorpion stings there, and we were right.
We knew that the clinic probably had some government affiliation, but it was only later that we learned it was run by the federal government as part of the “Seguro Popular” system that offers a limited range of medical care for those who aren’t covered under the IMSS, ISSSTE or other medical care system in Mexico.
Typically the people served by Seguro Popular are the poorest citizens, those who would otherwise find the services offered such as family planning, pre-natal monitoring, diabetes, blood-pressure and cancer screenings, etc. absolutely unaffordable. In fact, in my book, The English Speaker’s Guide to Medical Care in Mexico, I don’t recommend that foreigners use the Seguro Popular system at all because it is intended for poor people. The only exception, I suggest, is emergency care. And here I was facing an emergency.
One of the complaints you sometimes hear about the public system is that it is crowded, that there are long waits. But when my partner and I entered the modern building in mid-afternoon, it was basically empty. Within minutes I was under observation and warned that I might be for an hour or more until it was clear I wasn’t reacting to the venom. Every ten or fifteen minutes a staff member checked on me, asking me to report even the slightest changes in my nose, throat or breathing.
Mostly, I had nothing to report. But then, after about an hour I felt a very strong sensation in my nasal passages. It was like that intense feeling you get just before a sneeze, only this wasn’t followed by sneezing. I told the doc and I was immediately taken to a bright, clean ward and told to lie on the bed. In less than a minute I was given a vial of anti-venom through a vein in my hand. Other than the small prick of the needle, I felt no pain, no sensation at all. The nose tickles stopped and I was soon on my way.
Because of the research I’ve done on the cost of medical care, I was aware that that little vial of potentially lifesaving anti-venom I’d just received would typically cost about $100 USD at any hospital in Mexico. People sometimes need more that one vial. The doctors that treated me told me about a baby they treated that required 11 vials.
Remarkably, that same vial of anti-venom would cost between $7900 and $12,467 USD in the USA.
It sounds like I’m making that up doesn’t it? I’m not. Here’s a story about a woman who was treated for a scorpion sting in Phoenix. It took 2 vials and she was billed a whopping $83,047 USD. Her insurance company only picked up $57,509.
Ironic isn’t it? The US medical system is so broken that even someone with insurance is left to pay $25,000 USD out of pocket.
Everyone in Mexico gets treated better than that.
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Monica Rix Paxson is author of the English Speaker’s Guide to Medical Care in Mexico, an eBook available for immediate download containing practical advice about how to plan for and use medical and healthcare services in Mexico. She resides full-time in Tepoztlan, a beautiful highland town situated about 50 miles south of Mexico City.