Health Care in Panamá Shows Why Americans Can Be Grateful

In the community of La Gran Bendición in Panamá, there are no paved paths. Roads are made from dirt and homes are pieces of sheet metal forged together to create a shelter. There is no running water, and there aren’t typical bathrooms in the houses.

I went to Panamá with the Global Brigades: Medical and Dental (GB) at the end of August. In a three-day clinic funded by GB, my fellow volunteers and I, in addition to doctors and nurses, saw approximately 100 patients per day. People from the community came to the clinic seeking medical attention they couldn’t normally afford. This was the first time GB visited this community.

Medical and dental care in Panamá dramtically differs from that of the United States. The population in Panamá is about 3.8 million, according to information provided by GB. That is about the size of Chicago.

For every 704 Panamanian citizens, there is one doctor. But in the U.S., there are only 390 citizens for every one doctor. For every one dentist, there are 3,440 Panamanian citizens and 1,800 U.S. citizens. The life expectancy of women and men in Panamá is 80 years and 74 years, respectively. That is about two years fewer than women and men in the United States.

Panamanians rarely have access to medical care, while Americans take it for granted. Under the Affordable Care Act, 16.4 million people have gained health insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That is more than four times the population of Panamá. For Americans, Obamacare is a click away, but for La Gran Bendición, health care is not easily obtainable.

The people of La Gran Bendición put together the best possible space for us to work in, although conditions weren’t ideal. The community’s church served as a medical clinic, and a tarp separated the confined space into three stations. Community members built a new path to the clinic after rain destroyed the old one. They also built a bathroom next to the clinic for the volunteers. This was not asked of the community, and it wasn’t expected of them. They just did what they could to show their appreciation for receiving free health care.

Simple things such as physical doctor’s offices are a common luxury in the United States. In Panamá, the community members were extremely patient with the less-than-comfortable conditions. Some people waited several hours to go through the triage process, in which volunteers obtained patient information and vital signs. Community members continued waiting to see a doctor and then waited to obtain necessary medication from the pharmacist. In the U.S., patients are typically restless and unhappy with how long it takes to see a doctor.

The nearest hospital to the community is in Panamá City, which is about one hour away on foot since transportation is not readily available. At Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, we are only a few minutes away from the Wellness Center. As college students, we hardly realize how privileged we are.

La Gran Bendición translates to “the Great Blessing.”  The people of this community don’t have much, but they are grateful and happy. For them, a place to live and food is enough.

We learn about underdeveloped countries in school, but actually visiting one is an experience no textbook can convey. There aren’t words that can fully do justice to the community, but the people’s genuine smiles, thanks and appreciation in spite of their situations remind me every day how privileged we are here in the United States.

Samantha Tushaj is a senior psychology major.

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