The New Deity for Healthcare
They introduced him as Paco “El Tiburón.” The reason why they nicknamed him, “The Shark” was not immediate, but gradually I came to understand his fearlessness, strength, and clairaudience. At first, Paco was something unrecognizable to me. His body twisted and coiled as a result of cerebral palsy and spasticity, the image of him extended far beyond the ken of what was familiar to me.
He was just over twenty-five years old. Yet, his boyish smile, the geniality in his eyes, and his undersized figure implied he was younger. There was something gentle and reflective in his dark black eyes. They gleamed like the unrelenting Mexican sun reflecting off the ocean; and, when they happened to stop in your direction, it could be felt. The compulsion to share his glance prompted an unconscious desire to share his sentiment. So it was, that just by looking at him, you were overcome by feelings of joy and hope.
The unfamiliarity of Paco intrigued me to learn more about him and his condition. Day after day, I walked across the ivory sand and down a dirt road to arrive at Piña Palmera, a rehabilitation community on the Oaxacan coast, ready to better understand his circumstance. I sought to better understand what it meant to be him: culturally, emotionally, and medically. Having been abandoned by his family and rejected by society because of his condition, it was imperative that I found what interconnected us to help him heal as a person.
I exercised hydrotherapy and massage therapy on Paco in an effort to help with his circulation and prevent bedsores. Following every treatment we would venture out into the community to participate in educational outreach. The best came during break when we would share a laugh over chocolate milk. Despite the bond Paco and I shared not everything was easy. The most difficult task came in an unimaginable, yet simple form. Something completely natural for most people was a continuous battle for Paco and me. Both of us dreaded mealtime. Eating was difficult for Paco, he lacked the strength to chew and swallow completely. It was obvious that it made him uncomfortable and at times was painful. For the first couple of days I was overwhelmed by the situation: He grimaced in pain, I applauded his efforts; he yelled, I apologized. I thought of it as a necessary evil. One day, especially horrible, Paco purposefully knocked his bowl of mashed up food onto me. Without pause, I shouted borracho, “drunkard.” Paco laughed and laughed, and mealtime was never the same again. In fact, it became something we looked forward to.
From knowing Paco I have been made aware of the injustices caused by the limitations of medical treatment in underserved areas such as his. In the midst of a thriving jungle, people whose bodies were weakening surrounded me. Medicine was failing them. Unfortunately, substandard medical infrastructure and a lack of access to healthcare were not the only concerns. There was a lack of education within the community, limited access to basic nutrition, and substantial drug abuse. Ostensibly, these problems were all based on insufficient medical support, yet to me they extended further. For the first time, I saw healthcare as an inalienable right and in Oaxaca I witnessed a severe violation of these human rights.
Becoming cognizant of the undeniable relationship shared by sociology, human rights, and medicine allowed me to truly understand Paco and the nickname he had been given. Even though his eyes had seen pain, injustice, and death, they glowed. Light and laughter were an innate part of him; and this, his strength, was the reason he was regarded as The Shark. Ultimately, it was through him that I came to see medicine as the link between science and humanity.
It is clear that many health systems are flawed, in both developed and underdeveloped countries. More apparent, is the extreme suffering that they cause humanity as a whole. Disease effects all people without consideration of their socioeconomic status, the country they were born in, or their ability to access care. Disease is unbiased and cruel. Ultimately, it brings persons to the foundations of what it means to be human. Under this framework, it is anticipated that the policy implemented to combat disease be equally unbiased and aggressive. However, healthcare is not readily accessible to all people, there is disparity across nations and cultures, and the consequences call into question the moral obligations of humankind.
It is time we demand universal coverage and equal medical treatment under the premise of inalienable rights. Humans everywhere have the basic right to life. A fundamental right endowed to all persons based on the sole principle that they are human. We all have the right to live in the presence of life-threatening illness. Let us rise up and educate our selves on the inequality of health systems. Let us remember El Tiburon everyday and use his strength to restore human rights in medically underserved communities.