It was the last place I wanted to be.
Whenever it had come up in conversation, I would always tell people that I had never had to spend a night in the hospital. I would say it with that false sense of pride that comes with believing it had more to do with some exaggerated inner strength than just simple luck.
And yet there I was, in a hospital bed with an I.V drip in my arm, right where I had been for the past four nights. That false sense of pride finally, and rightfully, shattered.
It was Dengue Fever, the doctors told me; my second bout in less than two years. I lay there, as the hours trickled by, thinking about how little control we actually have over our own lives. As nurses came and changed my I.Vs, as they took me from one exam room to the next, as the doctor monitored my condition and as I mentally imagined the hospital bill grow and grow, I couldn’t help but feel a little ridiculous. All of this because of a small mosquito.
But small things have the power to remind us of big lessons.
As I was mentally trying to add up the growing bill that the hospital was going to hand over upon my release, I did so knowing that I was in the privileged position of having health insurance provided to me through my job that would cover the cost. As such, I was able to get treatment at one of the best hospitals in Guayaquil, one I never would have been able to afford had I not had insurance.
But it all made me feel uneasy.
I have seen first hand what a lack of access to decent health care means for people here in Ecuador.
In 2013, during my second trip to Onzole when I was still in university, I remember going to the village of Pambil, about three hours upriver from Santo Domingo. Pambil is a village of indigenous Chachi people on the banks of a crystal clear, shalow river, deep in the jungle. When we arrived we learned that a little boy in the community was severely ill and no one knew why. The family had been to see a doctor in one of the small, poorly-stocked clinics along the river but the under-resourced doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. The family needed to go to the city to get the child examined in a real hospital. Like with most families from Pambil, however, that wasn’t a real option and it meant that they had no choice but to return home and abandon their boy to the fates.
We returned to Pambil the next day and as we were getting closer a canoe passed us going the opposite direction. Inside was a small, closed wooden box. The boy had died in the night and the family was taking him away to be buried.
Where there is a lack of adequate, accessible health care, the line between life and death is truly thin.
Far too many of my friends along the river suffer with nagging illnesses because they simply don’t have the means to go see a professional doctor. The people who somehow are able to save up enough money to make it to the city are relegated to public clinics and hospitals, the only ones they can afford, where people have sometimes been known to die in the waiting rooms waiting to be seen.
I lay in my hospital bed thinking of my friend Maxima, a woman who suffers with sickle cell anemia, who needs regular blood transfusions. I lay there thinking of the times I’ve been to the public hospital with her, where poorly-trained doctors and nurses give her the run-around because there’s so many people looking to get treated that the system is overloaded. A hospital that doesn’t even have a blood bank so she has to go to where people who need the money line up outside the hospital to sell their blood by the pint to patients who need it. She needs to ask each one of them their blood type to make sure she gets the right kind of blood.
I lay there, in my hospital room, as nurses came regularly to check in on me, and realised that no matter how hard I try to be a part of this community that I love, by default of this broken and unequal world we live in, there will always be these barriers between us. That regardless of the fact that no matter how sick some people along the river get, they’ll never be able to leave their village while I’ll always be able to fly back to Canada if I need to. The safe option will always be available to me.
So does that mean that we shouldn’t bother? Why go through the (sometimes considerable) trouble of trying to come alongside a community that’s so different if we’ll never be able to fully achieve it? How can we at least try and circumvent these barriers?
There’s a sort of buzz phrase that one often hears used by people talking about social justice issues: ‘check your privilege’.
It means that most of us coming from the West are coming from positions of privilege compared to the rest of the world and it’s our responsibility to own up to that privilege and use it responsibly. I believe therein lies the answer.
The answer is not to deny that we have privilege, pretend we suffer just as much as others, and say that we work hard for what we have and therefore shouldn’t have to care about anyone else. That approach only leads to us locking ourselves within our imaginary castles.
Rather, the answer is to engage and immerse ourselves within communities and people on the margins of society so that when we are lying in a bed in a private hospital we can fully grasp the magnitude of what that means. That way, the next time we come alongside someone who is struggling for access to health care, or education, or fill in any blank you want, we act differently. We give more of ourselves.
Checking our privilege isn’t and should never be a simple slogan, a phrase we flippantly say to put others down or to make ourselves feel like we’re making a difference. It cheapens the real meaning. Checking our privilege should mean that we choose to sacrifice, to live uncomfortably, counter-culturally if you will, with our brothers and sisters on the margins so that we don’t have to live in a world where we watch a solemn, broken family float downriver in a canoe with a small, closed wooden box.