This New Yorker's experience of health care in Costa Rica


Link to properties in Costa RicaI know you have probably read many times over how good the medical care in Costa Rica is! Well I am here today to confirm this because of the great treatment I received a while back while living here. If you do not mind, I would like to tell you my first hand experience.

One late evening I was sitting in the office helping a client sell a beautiful ocean view three bedroom, two bath fully furnished luxury condo, high on the hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I just sent the final draft of the offer to the seller for their acceptance and just hung up the phone with them. While waiting for them to sign the offer and scan back to me, the buyer called me, who got my contact info from the offer. After 20 minutes of listing to the buyer screaming at me and threatening to cancel the offer if the seller did not accept, I Finally told the buyer that I did not like the accusations, statements and the way they were talking to me. Personally I believe Costa Rica was not the right choice for them. It was a bit of a selfish comment as I did not want this ass living near me.

Just as I hung up the phone I felt this pressure in my chest on the left side just above my breast. At first I did not think much of it but as I was driving home I started to feel it again and this time it was moving towards my shoulder. As I walked in the door of my house, I started to feel even worse. Now this is for everyone to remember, these are classic signs of a heart attack, so please pay attention to your body when it tells you.

At that moment, I thought this was a heart attack and I immediately popped to aspirin in my mouth and had my wife take me to the CIMA private hospital, just eight miles from my home. Now some would say why this jerk didn’t call 911. Well, yes there is 911 is available in Costa Rica, but I wanted to live and sometimes it can take up to 30 minutes for them to arrive. Knowing the hospital was so close I knew I could get there quicker than any ambulance.

CIMA Hospital in Guanacaste

As I walked in the emergency room, I said to the first nurse that approached me (and it was as soon as I walked in) that I thought I was having a heart attack. Well, holy crap, this little Tica, and mean she was small at best five feet tall and all of a hundred pounds, grabbed me and practically carried me to a gurney all the while screaming something in Spanish that I did not fully understand. Before I knew what was going on there were 4 people by my side, one putting a oxygen tube in my nose, another cutting my shirt off, another saying to me “Sir can you hear me? Did you take any drugs”? I responded that I had taken two full strength aspirins and she immediately said “open your mouth take these now” she handed me a cup of water and down they went.

CIMA Emergency Room Guanacaste

The nurse that cut off my shirt was now putting electrodes on my chest and some contraptions on my fingers, while another was working to take blood samples and another was taking my blood pressure.

It was incredible how fast and accurate these people were working on me, at least, that’s the way it looked to me. What do I know? I am a retired chef and now a real estate broker.

Within a few minutes a doctor walked up (I found out later he was the on staff emergency room doctor that night) and he asked me if I still felt any pain in my chest. I felt totally safe and in good hands, this doctors English was perfect, I responded and said the pain had subsided. He asked me a bunch more questions and turned and looked at a machine that was printing out a long strip a paper, I later found out it was a EKG they had done immediately. I also found out the drugs they stuffed into me that night were nitro glycerin and a blood thinner.

He looked at the results and said to me. “Sir, you are going to need heart surgery” At that point I thought hell if the event doesn’t kill me that statement is surely scaring the life out of me.

He continued to tell me that I had a blockage in one of the arteries and needed emergency angioplasty and possibly stents installed, depending on what the surgeon determines. I asked him straight forward, “ so I had a heart attack” he looked at me a smiled and said "actually no you did not – close but did not because you did the right thing by taking the aspirin and getting here ASAP we were able to stop it before it happened". He called it some medical term that was like talking Chinese to me, but who cares. That was some relief, so I said ok let’s do the procedure and when will it be. The doctor then said that they do not do that at this hospital however we can air transport you to San Jose and our main hospital and they will do the procedure tomorrow some time. I looked at him with a bit of a curious eye and said how do you know, tomorrow, he responded and said he was already on the phone with the main hospital and the cardiologist on duty had advised that I get there ASAP and if agreed would see to it that it took place in the morning. Go for it I said.

Within thirty five minutes nurses were moving me to a portable gurney and shifted all the tubes and wires to the post on that bed, getting me ready for transport. Then within another fifteen minutes, they were rolling me out the back door and there was an ambulance there waiting for me with two technicians and the drive. Once loaded into the ambulance the doctor jumped in the ambulance with me and said “I just want to make sure all is ok once we get you on the plane”. Really, Ok whatever?

Costa Rica Medical air transport

So off to the Liberia international airport we went, lights flashing and siren screaming and driving like hell, The drive pulled right onto the runway and pulled up to a small plane. This was totally out of this world for me; these folks were right on it and really took away any fear that one would have.

Once loaded on the plane the emergency room doctor grabbed my hand and said “sir, you are going to be alright, have no fears you are in great hands”. Then he introduced me to another doctor that was on the plane already waiting for me. This doctor actually flew up from San Jose on the transport plane so there would be a doctor with me on the way back to San Jose. This is incredible, I could not believe it. In the back of my head I was thinking, “Cha Ching $$$$$” you know the sound a cash register makes; boy is this going to cost a boat load I thought. I will get to that later.

The doctor on the plane monitored all my vitals during the 40 minute flight asking every five minutes or so “sir are you feeling any pain or discomfort” he was a great. Upon arriving at the airport on San Jose there was already an ambulance waiting there with lights flashing. I was starting to think, "holy crap, am I going to make it?" I don’t care what that other doctor said.

Once in the emergency room in CIMA’s main hospital, which only took about 15 minutes from the airport, the cardiologist on staff walked in and introduced herself. Again this doctor spoke perfect English and started another EKG. After reading the results she looked at me and said,” Joseph, you were pretty smart getting to the hospital in time, I am going to move you to the front of the list for cardiac procedures in the morning and have no fear, we will take great care of you. She said “the Plumber is the best in all of Costa Rica”. The plumber! What the heck was she talking about? So I asked and she laughed, and said “Oh sorry, that’s what we call the cardiac surgeon that does angioplasty and stents, he cleans out people pipes and puts in supports if needed”. It was nice to see that this doctor was actually human and had a bit of a sense of humor.

CIMA San Jose

At five am a team of four nurses came in and started prepping me for surgery, they gave me a shot of something and a good part of the rest was a blur. The last thing I remember was being rolled into the operating room and meeting the “Plumber”, he said to me don’t worry I do this every day. I later found out he was the top in his field in all of the Costa Rica as the other cardiologist had said. I remember him telling me, we have two options to do this, one through the vein in your thigh, or the other through the vein in your wrist. That was the last thing I remember. Turns out they went thru the vein in my wrist.

Well I guess the surgery went well because here it is almost 2 years later and I am still here and feel great. The next thing I remembered was being rolled down some hallway and someone was talking to me. I looked over and thought "holy crap, I did not make it this is my attorney standing next to me saying something". Actually I have to say this; how many attorneys do you know that actually would take the time out of his day to go over to a hospital to visit a client that is not worth millions of dollars. I could not believe that he cared enough to actually find out how I was doing first hand. I have to say he is more than an attorney but a good friend. He told me if I need anything at all have a nurse call him and he would make sure I was taken care of no matter what, and slid his card into my hand and said "just hold on to this if you need it".

Later that day the first cardiologist I met the night before came in and proceeded to tell me that I was going to be alright and the surgery was a complete success. She said I had to stay here in the hospital for a few more days of observation as she wanted to make sure I was totally ok before she released me. She informed me that the surgery was perfectly done and that the Plumber found four blockages and put stents in all of them after cleaning them out. Little did I know I was actually in intensive care for the first three days. I guess it was true this was serious crap!!

CIMA Hospital Room

I have to tell you the care I received was unbelievable, there were nurses and other doctors checking on me every few hours, and if I needed anything they were there in seconds. A dietician came in to talk to me about eating habits for the future to make sure this does not happen again. Then the day before they discharged me, a physical therapist came in and said get out of bed because your new exercise program starts now. She was great showing me exercises I had to do at first and where I needed to be over time to make sure my heart gets back to where it should be.

The day my cardiologist discharged me, she spent almost 2 hours with me going over the entire process that happened and what was done to me and what I needed to make sure I did in the future so she did not have to see me again in the hospital. Actually she was the one that ordered all the others to come in and visit and teach me new habits.

Every four to five months I go back for a checkup and am happy to say the care is still as good as the day it happened.

Here is the real kicker as I mentioned earlier in this article. The cost! The entire thing, emergency room, the air transport, the surgery, the hospital stay and follow up was $56,000.00 USD. Now I know that’s a lot of money in anybody’s book, unless you happen to be filthy rich which I am not. I did some checking and if this had happened in the US, the cost would have been easily TEN TIMES more and higher. However I did have private health care insurance that I purchased in Costa Rica and that is a whole other subject I will write about next time.

So when you read on many web sites about the quality of health care in Costa Rica. Believe it, it is top quality and I am happy to say it is true. Contact me if you would like more information and references, as I would be happy to supply them.

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