November 5, 2019
Two weeks ago, I returned to Toronto for one of my regular visits. I was scheduled to see doctors and my dentist, even though most such care I might need is available inexpensively in Mexico. As a general rule, though, it makes sense to me to continue with the same specialists over time, as my body gets older, and deteriorates the way nature apparently wants it to.
There is, however, a distinct difference in how said corpus behaves in Toronto and in Mexico. I often complain that Toronto feels full of tensions between people, and it’s hard for me to settle back into the groove here after being in Mexico. Involuntarily, I react to the city by tensing up various zones of my physical self.
To prove this point, one part of my body that caused a problem in 2018 reacted to being back here, and I ended up two Saturdays ago in the emergency department of the local hospital. I’m going to spare my more sensitive readers the details here, having found that regaling friends with them tended to put people off their lunch, and possibly subsequent meals as well. Suffice it to say that geezers have difficulties that younger men don’t need to dream about. I don’t have a life-threatening issue. but the new meds leave me a bit dizzy, and I don’t like them.
It’s dishonest to pretend I don’t miss the city where I lived for four decades. It was my hometown when my children were growing, when I was building a career in magazine publishing, and where I found many fine things, cultural, culinary and material, from all over the world. I have friends here I only get to see a few times a year. It remains a great city, and I wish my body liked it.
But my body likes Mexico, even if I did sprain an ankle (which healed completely) back in April. The geezer problem stayed in the background the past year I was living in Amatlan. I lost weight and an inch or so of waistline, I walked hillside trails and grassy roadside paths and ate locally grown produce, and apart from intermittent vertigo, which started some years ago in Toronto, I didn’t have much to complain about. On a cold day or evening in Amatlan, I’d need just a sweater. Yes, the rains could be a bit much, and yes, there are too many mosquitoes around at times. But Mr. Body said he was happy there. Not here, though.
I’m coming finally to understand something about elderly people’s attitudes to the medical profession. (For the record, I just turned seventy, which I think counts as elderly). It isn’t, on the whole, the inconveniences of a body that’s no longer young that upset us, but the process of getting treated for those inconveniences.
There are few places more depressing than a hospital emergency room. That isn’t because you go there when you have a problem, but because, necessarily, you have to wait. The walls are bleak, the lighting is all artificial and yellow, and there are posters and signs on the walls that you suspect were put there in 1993. There’s a hint of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four in the decor – you know, “the place where there is no darkness.”
John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love, from the film 1984.
Eventually, you get to see a medical professional, who comes in, subtly inhales lest you’re about to spew anger, and asks what your story is. You have, given the budgetary constraints of the health system, around fifteen minutes to sort things out. And most probably, you’ll need tests.
Doctors, sensibly, ask for their hunches to be confirmed with hard numbers. But tests take time to process, so you have to wait for days, or even weeks, for results to be available. Again, you go and wait for the doctor, who tries to soft-pedal any seriousness in what’s been found, but has to communicate the seriousness nonetheless.
In my case, three days after my emergency visit, I was subjected to a (very) hands-on investigation involving a tiny camera (ouch, yow-oooh, ow), which showed … nothing that serious. Yet the problem persists, so now I’m on meds that as noted, leave me dizzy.
When I was young, I’d laught at how the elderly, given half a chance, would tell you the woeful tale of their operations. But now I get it. It’s not the illness or the syndrome, but the helplessness you feel trying to get that illness addressed and healed, or at least reduced, that fills you with a need to tell all. The operation, the treatment, is the worst thing, because it’s done to you deliberately. It’s upsetting to become an object, a little baffled by why processes in your body have gone astray, and waiting to learn if there’s a simple treatment, or even an effective one. Your sense of agency diminishes to a fraction of its normal resilience.
I might be able to switch meds to a different regimen, and less dizziness, if matters have settled in a week or two. And because I’ll be back to Amatlan, I’m cautiously optimistic that the benign climate, and streets without tense, self-absorbed people will allow my body to relax and indicate to me, “Well, maybe I can do this.”
I never bad-mouth the Canadian health system, especially knowing various Americans in Mexico who’ve told me how they were fleeced by their own. The bureaucracy of the Ontario Health Insurance Program is unfortunate, but unavoidable. But to date, Doctor Mexico has been my most supportive clinician and nurse. I stay healthier there than I would with a well-medicated lifestyle in Toronto. For people who feel I’m being opportunistic, I point out that in Mexico I pay out of my own pocket for minor things that the public system would be called on to cover (at Canadian rates) if I were grumbling and coughing through a dire Ontario winter, and therefore overall I save OHIP cash. I still pay taxes to Canada, too.
Any serious study of long-term health involves a discussion of lifestyle. Rural Ontario for me would be isolating, and I’d need more money than I can count on having. So for now, I’m counting on Doctor Mexico to bring me back to a sense of command over my own physical well-being.