Argentina Sketches: Story of the Eye

Lying in bed my eye felt like it was going to explode, finally, after hours, aqueous fluid and pus squirted out relieving the pressure. The pain subsided, but only for fifteen minutes. So began a rewarding experience of the public health sector in Argentina, one winter morning in 2010.

After consulting my friend (who I later fell out with) at reception, I took a taxi to Hospital Lagleyze in Villa Gral. Mitre. Only one eye was infected and very sensitive to light, to keep it clamped shut I needed the good eye to be pretty much closed too. I was not feeling great. The taxi driver was sympathetic: “not far now”, he said as we rattled down a cobbled street.

I lined up to register for la guardia, my passport had an expired tourist visa inside but they weren’t worried about that. The wait in la guardia was not inordinately long. The doctor inspected my eye with equipment out of date compared to what optometrists in New Zealand had. He was friendly, spoke some English, but gave me the news in Spanish, “se puede curar, pero es una emergencia médica”. I needed to get steroid drops and antibiotics in my eye right away to sort out the infected abscess caused by my contact lenses. A common problem I’m sure. A student doctor took me to where I had to wait for my prescription, she put her hand on my shoulder sympathetically as I was a pathetic sight.

Upstairs at the dispensary I got two bottles of eye drops, these needed to be kept in the fridge and administered once every hour for forty-eight hours. This was going to make sleep near impossible. I ‘slept’ on the couch in reception to have easy access to my drops in the kitchen fridge. My alarm rang every hour at five to the hour. My condition was brought on by misuse of contact lenses. That August I was working the four to midnight shift on reception, after which I usually went out drinking until five and then crashed without taking my contact lenses out. They were one month’s disposables, bacteria covered and scratching my eyes as I slept, little wonder I had a problem.

Two days later I was back at the hospital with a piece of paper that let me into the waiting hall for patients on return visits. There were a lot of bunged up eyes in there. An elderly lady asked me to administer drops into her bloodshot eyes, this made me feel less alone. A little rat of a man shouted out that he’d been attended by a blond female doctor, I clung to his excitement that a hot blond could treat someone like him….amazing mate! The doctor who saw me this time was all black humour. Keep putting in those drops…or we’ll have to rip it out. It was no longer every hour though, my eye was on the mend.

The drops were free as was seeing the doctor. If you get to the hospital early morning in Argentina you can not only see a doctor, but a specialist of the same quality or better than those in the private clinics. Often the same doctors work in both sectors. My experience is from the rich Capital Federal not the poorer provinces though. After writing several true crime articles about Argentina, I wanted to talk about something good about the country — great in fact — the free healthcare. Of course it has its problems and — the question is, in a country with an ever-tanking economy should medical care be free, especially for foreigners? This a debate on which Argentinians are very divided.

Juan Domingo Perón in his first government from 1946–1952 created a strong welfare state. He built a lot of hospitals, lowered the rate of infant mortality and tuberculosis. A tenet of Peronism is that healthcare is a responsibility of the state. On the other side people will show you that Argentina’s per capita income started falling at this time, that Perón received a rich country to govern and left it poor — he spent too much. Lagleze, the ophthalmology hospital I visited, was built in 1942 before Perón. In Recoleta, what you might call the central hospital, the current incarnation of Hospital de Clinicas was built under Peron in 1949. The many towers of Clincas include the Faculty of Medicine and a number of specialist departments. Clinicas has something of an Eastern European communist feel, but hospitals are not about architecture. I’ve been there for a few minor issues — clogging up the system no doubt.

I was working illegally at the hostel, three shifts a week for free accommodation and one hundred pesos (then in 2010 twenty-five USD, now less than two) for any extra eight hour shifts. There were two or more other guys doing the same thing at any given time. Some of them I saw last summer on a trip to Buenos Aires. Spending months living in the same room tends to make you friends or enemies for life. The hostel was called Firulete — a term which refers to a series of moves in a tango dance — now it appears to just be imaginatively named hostel (I’ll resist checking on booking.com).

When I hear tales of Argentines and Chileans stuck at hostels here in Wellington (other nationalities too sure, but I don’t get those reports) during this Covid-19 quarantine period I feel sorry for them. Especially those at Lodge in the City, where a bunk in a room of twelve costs one hundred dollars a week — the cheapest deal in town. I’ve never been into Lodge but through the windows you can see people’s stuff piled up on the window sill. I hope none of them get sick in those crowded conditions. Many are working holidayers who were doing temp jobs that are now non-existent and so will be struggling financially. (They can’t all work reception at the hostel.)

Harry Spires Hostel in the 1950s, now Lodge in the City

Lodge in the City currently has 2.5 stars from 443 reviews on google — when the score is less than three out of five you know things are bad. Built in the fifties, the boxy four-storey structure used to be the Harry Spires Hostel for the elderly. The hostel I worked at in Buenos Aires was built not long after the turn of the twentieth century and is a much more attractive structure, from the outside at least.

The locals who did the day shifts when I was there have become quite successful. Mariano, who was about thirty-four in 2010, is now a well-known painter and kung fu teacher. A talented guy, I think he resented having to work at a hostel. Juan, the first Catholic communist I ever met, has since met the Pope and word has it he may have finished the history degree he’d been doing for ten years. The University of Buenos Aires, with no tuition fees, has high standards and a reputation for being hard to graduate from. If you aren’t paying you don’t have so much to complain about when your professor fails you?

Hospital Santa Lucia

About ten days after my first trip to Hospital Lagleyze, I went to Hospital Santa Lucia, another eye hospital in Buenos Aires. I ended up there because I got in a taxi and said “to the eye hospital” as I couldn’t remember the name Lagleyze. The driver obliged by taking me to Santa Lucia in San Cristóbal. I thought my abscess was back — it was just conjunctivitis. Santa Lucia, founded in 1823, was the first hospital in Latin America specialising in diseases of eye. In the neighbourhood of San Cristóbal since 1922, it is quite attractive. Before I went in to line up for la guardia I got a small plastic cup off a guy with multiple metal thermoses on his cart. The coffee tasted metallic and was loaded with sugar, but hey it contained caffeine. That I felt well enough to risk street coffee was a good sign. Not long after my eye issues I had a flu-type virus. I was working extra to make up the shifts the guys had covered for me when I couldn’t open my eyes. Mariano said, not unsympathetically “you’re always sick!” Being low season, there wasn’t much to do and I lay on the couch watching Two and a Half Men. However, there was always somebody up early wanting breakfast and conversation. It’s a sweet and sour experience living and working in a hostel, for example, you get to meet people but it’s hard to get away from them when you are sick or more likely hungover.

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