A REAL DOCTOR
On June 26th, Dr. Price, pediatrician from Palo Alto, together with his wife Joan, and three small children arrived in San Ignacio according, to schedule. I was there to meet them with my jeep. This took some doing as mine was-the-first vehicle to travel from Ajoya since the storm of “El Día de San Juan.” As the road was now impossible for the Prices’ microbus, we transferred their gear into and onto my Jeep and returned over the rough track to Ajoya. Helped and hindered by a troop of village children, the Prices pitched camp on a hilltop overlooking the pueblo. Every day for the eight days of their visit, and without being asked, one villager or another—sometimes a child, sometimes a woman, sometimes an old man, on foot or with the aid of a donkey—brought up water for them from the river.
The greatest number of patients whom Dr. Price examined during his visit were children with diarrhea. Now that the rains had started there was scarcely a house in the village where children were not stricken with el chorro. Dr. Price informed me that recent studies indicate that supportive treatment for dysentery is more significant than medicinal. Bed rest and a liquid diet with adequate salt intake are the most important. We ran into some real problems, however, in trying to apply this course with our patients. A mother would come with a child with diarrhea and we would tell her, as simply as possible, to withhold all other food and to give the child a mixture of one teaspoonful of salt and three tablespoons of sugar in a liter of boiled water. We would repeat the instructions several times and the mother would assure us she had understood. Then we would ask her to repeat back the ingredients and she would titter with embarrassment and say “Ya se me olvidó.” (Now I forget.) We would repeat again and again until she had it straight, or would write out the formula if she knew how to read, which was rarely. Then the mother would leave, showing obvious disappointment. She had hoped for some magic potion from the new white doctor and all she had got was the advice to give ingredients she already had and knew weren’t magic at all. I think it was for this reason she found it so difficult to remember. Two or three days later the mother would return, entreating us to go to her house. There we would find the child, or children, still stricken with el chorro and the mother would entreat us again for “una medicina buena” or better yet, in her mind, “una inyección”. We would ask her if she had followed the formula and she would assure us “¡que si!” But on asking her again to repeat the proportions, more often than not we found she had confused them. Or we would ask if she had been giving other food, and she would reply, “¡No, nada!” . . but on pressing her further, she would confess “pues yo le di unas tortillas,” or “un poco de frijoles.” (I gave him a few tortillas/beans.)
Dr. Price and I concluded that the solution was to give out the sugar and salt mixed in the right proportions and ready for adding the boiled water. We thought to include baking soda as well, for apart from its own value, it is fizzy and therefore more like medicine. In addition, when we went to Mazatlán we purchased a batch of Kool-Aid, strawberry-flavored because “medicines are red”, to add taste and character to our new magic powders I have since been giving out the “red fizz” to mothers to add to one liter of boiled water for their stricken little ones, and have been having better results. Because it is now a medicina, the mothers are careful to ask “¿si no tiene dieta?” (Is there a diet?) I tell them to give absolutely no other food while the child is taking “la medicina colorada” and they follow the instructions because they fear that food “se contrarea con la medicina” (will oppose the medicine).
Another discouraging battle we had was over the question of boiling water. If the water is for mixing with medicine, the people will boil it religiously. But for everyday use, no. They will nod in agreement that much of the diarrhea comes from “los microbios en el río.” They will concede that every year many children die as a result of this water. They will even concede to boil the water, saying it is “muy importante.” But when we return a few days later to see if they have really been boiling the water, they will say, “Pues, no… ” Es que nosotros no estamos acostumbrados hacer esas cosas.” (Well, no. . . It’s that we’re not used to doing these things.) Nevertheless, here and there, there is a family that has begun to boil their water regularly, and I suppose that is a start.
One of the most critical patients we examined lived “en la loma” (on the hilltop) not far from where the Prices were camped. The family is pobre de atiro, for Juan, the father, has been too ill to work for more than two years, and before that most of the money that came his way he used for drink. From his drinking has come his sickness, namely cirrhosis. His abdomen is bloated to three times its normal size, while the rest of his body has become emaciated in extreme. He lives on the hill crest in a tiny shack, together with his wife and children, ranging from fifteen down to less than a year. (Although too ill to work he is still well enough to have babies.)
We gave Juan medication and powdered milk, advised him as to diet, and told him to remain lying down or moving about but not to sit with his legs hanging over the edge of the bed as he was accustomed to do all day long, for his feet are also edemic. His wife informed us that they had scraped together 200 pesos and were thinking of taking Juan to Mazatlán for examination. We told them Juan stood a better chance of recovery if they were to spend the money on protein-rich food, perhaps buy a flock of chickens to provide eggs. I had already sent Juan and his wife to Mazatlán two months before with a cover letter to the Director of the Centro de Salud, providing 100 pesos for the trip; but they had spent the money on a curandero (healer of witchcraft) instead of going to the Centro. Juan had not improved.
One evening while the Prices were in Ajoya, the baker woman, Rosaura, Ramona’s grandmother, made a social call at their camp. With her came old Nicolasa, the lavandera (washer woman) who lives on “la loma” in a but next to that of little Goyo’s great-grandmother. We began to chat, and in the course of the conversation mentioned that we had been to see Juan.
“¡No me gusta nada esas gentes!” (I don’t like those people!) cried Old Nicolasa in her sharp, scratchy voice. “¡Tienen la lengua larga!” (They have the long tongue’)
I tried to draw from Old Nicolasa what she was referring to, but she was non-committal. She added only, “Les andan con las mentiras como los mayates andan con la mierda!” (They move along lies like beetles move along dung!)
We could not account for Old Nicolasa’s vehemence until Rosaura explained to us that Juan’s family had spread rumors that Nicolasa had placed a hex on him, causing his bloated condition. They claimed she was a witch!
“¡Chismeros!” cried Nicolasa. (Gossipers!)…
I recalled that old Micaela had told me that Nicolasa had killed a man years ago with a hex which had made him panzón (pot-bellied) and that now she was hexing his son. It suddenly dawned on me that this must be Juan. “¿Como murió el papá de Juan?” (How did Juan’s father die?) I asked.
“Pues, de la misma enfermedad,” (Of the same illness) replied Rosaura.
“¿Tomaba mucho tambien?” (Did he drink a lot, too?) I asked.
“Mucho!” asserted Rosaura, and by way of explanation added, “¡Pues los dos eran musicos!” (Both of them were musicians!)
Rosaura defended Nicolasa, saying that Nicolasa had been working in her house and doing her wash for years, that often she worked until after dark, and then went straight home, where she cared for her grandchildren. There was no conceivable time that she could be sneaking to the graveyard to make clay monos and cast hechizos.
“Yo no creo nada en las brujas.” I said (I don’t believe in witches at all.)
“¡Yo tampoco!” (I don’t either!) creaked Old Nicolasa, and she threw up her gnarled hands and cackled.
Before his departure from Ajoya, Dr. Price had begun to gather a reputation he had not gambled on, that of a witch doctor, a curer of witchcraft.
One morning while the Prices were breakfasting, María, the old woman who cured Jose Vidaca’s baby of caida de la mollera (sunken fontanel), brought on her head a bucket of water for the Prices, and proceeded to inform Val of a transient paralytic cramping she suffered on one side of her body. To demonstrate she crooked her right arm in a grotesque fashion, recalling the seizures of Dr. Strangelove. Neither Dr. Price nor I had a clue to what might be the cause, unless psychosomatic, and after hinting around a bit, María volunteered that she thought she might have been hexed by an old witch in Pueblo Viejo. We decided to give her vitamins and assured her, as a kind of psychotherapy, that soon she ought to be feeling better… Word spread fast that the American doctor was now curing hechizos. That same afternoon Old Lupe, Micaela’s sister, although she had not bothered to come all week, made three visits to the casa Chavarín in the hopes of having her hex lifted. She is loquacious, fat, and has an endless series of complaints. For over two months I treated her for a necrotic buttock which had resulted from an injection with an unsterile needle. Lupe blames all of her ailments down to the deaths of her children, of which she has lost all but two of her eight, on witchcraft. Micaela insists that it is the work of either Old Cecilia, Nicolasa, or both. Unfortunately (or fortunately), when Lupe made each of her three visits we happened to be out on house calls, and next day the Prices left for Mazatlán. Hence Dr. Price was denied the opportunity of providing a cure for Lupe’s manifold hexes.
Up to the time the Prices left Ajoya, Val and I paid several calls on Juan, the cirrhotic, and, in spite of our advice, each time we found him sitting with his swollen feet hanging over the edge of his bed. The morning of the Prices’ departure Val passed by Juan’s shack, and neither Juan nor his wife was there. The day before we had heard rumor that they were preparing to leave for Mazatlán, and we had stopped by to advise them once more against it. They had assured us that they had given up the idea.
In my jeep, I drove the Prices to where they had left their microbus in San Ignacio. Sure enough, half way over the rough 27 km. stretch of dirt road, Val said “There they are.” And there they were, Juan and his wife, trudging along, Juan laboring under the load of his swollen abdomen, his wife laboring under a large suitcase she carried balanced on her head. We stopped the car. They were embarrassed to see us. We asked where they were going, and they said to the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán. We told them again they would do better to go home, and spend their pesos to buy chickens.
Our advice, of course, did no good. They were probably on their way to see another curandero to have the hex lifted. Perhaps they even suspected us of wishing them ill, for had not Old Nicolasa spent an evening with us in the Prices’ camp…? Juan will probably die of cirrhosis. When he dies people will say the hex killed him, and in part, alas, they will be right.