Mexico, Part 17: Back surgery in Ensenada

Happily back in Ensenada, we looked forward to hitting the ground running with some projects. We were wanting to build a roof rack over the cab and have a new gas tank fabricated, but we were also eager to help our friends Mauricio, Abigail, Pablo and Anna with some projects of their own. Since we'd been gone, Mauricio and Abby had secured the rental house next door to their own and were feverishly rehabbing it to turn it into a rockin' Airbnb rental. Alongside that, they'd also purchased an old Airstream with P&A and were ALSO rehabbing that to turn it into an Airbnb! Lots of projects to be and worked on!

Shortly after we'd arrived, the recurring issue of my back pain came up. We'd decided that receiving an MRI to diagnose the cause was my best bet to start working towards a solution. Knowing it'd be a while before we returned to the stability of a job and able to buy health insurance, I wanted to try to get an MRI while still in Mexico, where we were certain it'd be much more affordable. As luck would have it, Mauricio knew a wonderful neurosurgeon in town and was willing to set up an appointment for me to get a referral for an MRI.

From here on out, I'm going to do this post in a timeline form. Our experience with me having surgery in Mexico was really wonderful and eye-opening…from the quickness of the process to the cost of care, we were just blown away. Not only would we not have been able to afford any of this in the US, it would probably have taken months of appointments, referrals and the like to achieve the same outcome.

Monday, March 13th

Mauricio calls Dr. Fong to see if he can set up an appointment for me. The appointment was scheduled for the very next day.

Tuesday, March 14th

I have my first appointment with Dr. Fong. He gives me a small examination and tests my movement after having me describe my symptoms. Appointment ends with him writing me a referral for an MRI and some X-rays. I ask if I need to set up an appointment to get them, he says, "No, just show up in the morning and they'll set something up."

Total cost for appt: $35 USD

Wednesday, March 15th

I show up to Burboa Radiológos with my referral and no appointment. After listening to me stumble through a poorly spoken Spanish explanation that I didn't have an appointment, they tell me that they're so sorry, they can't fit me in until 10:30am (it was 9:45am at the time). I paid my bill up front, and after a short and pleasant wait, I was brought in for my MRI promptly at 10:30am. Following the MRI, I had a set of three X-rays taken and was then told I could wait for my films out front (which only took an additional 15 minutes after I'd finished being scanned).

Total cost for MRI/XRAY: $238 USD

Friday, March 17th

Another appointment with Dr. Fong for a follow-up to have him read the films and diagnose. Burboa had sent him the scans online, so he'd been able to review them before our meeting. His first comment when I walk in the door is, "I don't know how you're still walking!" He identified two herniated discs…one between L4/L5 and another, the culprit behind my pain, between L5/S1. He recommends surgery (a microdisectomy with nucleotomy in L5/S1). We decide to think on it, and he gives me his cell phone number to call or text him when we've made a decision. He also says I will have to get labs and blood work done beforehand, but that can be done without an appointment at his clinic.

Total cost for appt: $35 USD

You can see where the disc is severely herniated in the lowest disc above my tailbones. (Between L5/S1 for those that know…) That large black protrusion should not be there. I also have a partially herniated disc above it in the L4/L5, but that one was left alone during surgery.

You can see where the disc is severely herniated in the lowest disc above my tailbones. (Between L5/S1 for those that know…) That large black protrusion should not be there. I also have a partially herniated disc above it in the L4/L5, but that one was left alone during surgery.

Saturday, March 18th

We text Dr. Fong to let him know we'd like to do the surgery. Even though it's a Saturday, the clinic is open, so I go and get my labs and blood work done.

Total cost of labs/blood work: $45 USD

Tuesday, March 21st

I have another appointment with Dr. Fong to go over the details of my surgery and review my labs.

Thursday, March 23rd (surgery day)

I have my last meal and last liquids before 8 am. I check into the hospital at 2 pm and my surgery is scheduled for 5 pm. When checking in, we pay part of our hospital bill up front and they explain that additional costs incurred will be charged upon my discharge the next day. My room is private with its own bathroom and also has a couch/futon for Christian to stay the night if he wants. The nurses prep me, giving me an IV and compression socks. I'm rolled out at 5 pm on the dot. Dr. Fong greets me in the operating room and introduces me to the anesthesiologist, who asks me some questions and then explains what will happen. We go over the details of the surgery once more and I learn that I will be receiving a catheter (thankfully, after I'm put under). I was also intubated, so my meds to keep me asleep were administered through the IV.

The surgery took a few hours, and Dr. Fong even called Christian down to show him the nucleus that he'd removed and explain that everything went well. My incision was closed up and I was carted back up to the room where I was transferred back to my bed and left to rest and recover overnight.

Total cost for surgery and hospital stay: $4,886 USD

Checking into the hospital. Everyone was super helpful and friendly despite us not speaking much Spanish.

Checking into the hospital. Everyone was super helpful and friendly despite us not speaking much Spanish.

Don't worry, my name was only spelled wrong on this sign. In their defence, phonetically, according to how we pronounce our last name, this is how it would be spelled for Spanish. If we pronounced it correctly according to the Spanish alphabet, we'd have to say, "Tootle"

Don't worry, my name was only spelled wrong on this sign. In their defence, phonetically, according to how we pronounce our last name, this is how it would be spelled for Spanish. If we pronounced it correctly according to the Spanish alphabet, we'd have to say, "Tootle"

Hospital gowns are so flattering, aren't they?

Hospital gowns are so flattering, aren't they?

One of several of the fantastic nurses that tended to me putting my IV in.

One of several of the fantastic nurses that tended to me putting my IV in.

Waiting for them to come get me.

Waiting for them to come get me.

Wheeling me down to the operating room…

Wheeling me down to the operating room…

Friday, March 24th

The next morning, Dr. Fong came to see me and answer any questions we might have about my recovery. I received a prescription for an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory (no painkillers!). He let us know that the surgery was a very good decision on our part, as the nucleus of my disc had ruptured out in such a way that it was jammed between my nerves and pretty severely cutting off my sciatic nerve. The nerve was very red and inflamed and had we left it alone, I might've caused permanent damage. Thank God we were led down this path!

The nurses then fed me breakfast, my first and very highly anticipated meal in 24 hours, and sent Christian down to the front desk to pay the remainder of the bill and got me up and walking to prepare for my exit. It was painful and slow, but amazingly, I felt better than I had in months. My pain relief from my nerve was immediate, and though the surgical site would need time to heal, I was in high spirits.

TOTAL COST OF EVERYTHING: $5240

Dr. Fong, my hero!

Dr. Fong, my hero!

Walking out of the hospital! (Don't worry, they made me take a wheelchair after Christian took a photo of me shuffling triumphantly out of my hospital room.)

Walking out of the hospital! (Don't worry, they made me take a wheelchair after Christian took a photo of me shuffling triumphantly out of my hospital room.)

I then spent the next two solid weeks in a bed graciously loaned to us by Mauricio and Abi. Christian had worked it out that he would help with all their projects while I recovered in the back room of their beach house Airbnb, both of us equiped with Walkie-Talkies to communicate with. By the third or fourth day, I was starting to become more independent and able to do the simpler things such as get myself in and out of bed and on and off of the toilet by myself. For a 32-year-old who has always thrived on self-sufficiency, relying so heavily on Christian to help with even the smallest tasks was difficult for me, but I was so thankful for his support.

Christian building a bed frame for the mattress for the recovery room. He actually built it specifically for a height that would be more comfortable for me to get in and out of. What a guy!

Christian building a bed frame for the mattress for the recovery room. He actually built it specifically for a height that would be more comfortable for me to get in and out of. What a guy!

Finished!

Finished!

Out for my first real walk, the very next day! My steps were slow and tiny, but it was good to move around!

Out for my first real walk, the very next day! My steps were slow and tiny, but it was good to move around!

Loulou, who was still living in the rig while I recovered inside the house, was a highly motivating factor behind my frequent walks.

Loulou, who was still living in the rig while I recovered inside the house, was a highly motivating factor behind my frequent walks.

One more note about this post and my surgery:

I wrote this post in such detail because I am hoping that my transparency about the process and the cost will help someone else out at some point. For those that are in a position where seeking out proper medical care because it's unaffordable, finding out that there are healthy and safe alternatives to the normal procedures can be very important knowledge. For those not in this situation, it might be a helpful glimpse into a world they're unfamiliar with. Our experience as a whole while in Mexico has been nothing but positive, but once we dove into the medical care side, we were floored by the efficiency of the system. We didn't go into the decision lightly, but we trusted our friend who recommended the surgeon (he had had extensive reconstructive spinal surgery from the same dr.) and trusted the surgeon to not recommend an unnecessary procedure.

That being said, we're so happy I went through with it. I'm a month out from surgery and I'm still blown away by how much better I feel now that I'm pain free. Though the pain only became extremely severe around Christmas, I've been living with moderate to slightly severe back pain for years, so it has been a truly life-changing experience.