Getting Healthy in Costa Rica

Getting sick in a foreign country is something every traveller fears at some point in their life. Having insurance is a good place to start, but in many cases it’s more hassle than it’s worth to make a claim once you get home.

There are so many unknowns when you first walk into a doctors office. Will they speak English, are they well trained, is their care is up to western standards, and most importantly (at least to some people) how much is all this is going to cost?

Cost is huge, especially if you’re Canadian and used to not paying for medical care. And this is where my experience starts.

I had breathing and coughing trouble long before we moved to Costa Rica in May of 2015 – at one point I was coughing so hard I actually broke a rib. New Years Eve of 2014, after gorging on Indian food and wine we nearly called an ambulance because I was having such trouble breathing. I saw doctors, specialists, emergency technicians, had a myriad of tests and took a wide selection of drugs, all with varying levels of success. My health would improve drastically and then take a nosedive again. All I ever found out was that I had some sort of asthma, and that my condition was a puzzle.

When we moved to Costa Rica in May I was feeling reasonably healthy and I had hoped that I had made a permanent recovery. Unfortunately the coughing returned and I had my first taste of the Costa Rican medical system a few months later. I asked around town and finally chose to see Doctor Luis Diego Herrra Fernández in Plaza Conchal, located in central Tamarindo. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of care I received, which was fantastic, and the cost was reasonable as well – the doctor’s visit cost around $60 US. There was no waiting, you can just walk in and be seen very quickly.

The most expensive part of the process was prescription drugs, which can be shockingly expensive in Costa Rica. I paid over $150 for a round of steroids in Costa Rica – the same drugs cost me $5 with my health plan back in Canada. Other drugs were similarly expensive and this is where the cost of medical care in Costa Rica really adds up.

Since that initial doctors visit I have seen Doctor Luis Diego Herrra Fernández numerous other times and he has been incredibly helpful and generous with his time and resources. When my condition worsened he helped me to set-up an appointment with a pulmonary specialist at Hospital Clínico San Rafael Arcángel in Liberia, about an hours drive away from Tamarindo.

The specialist appointment cost around $90 US, plus another $100 for x-rays and blood tests. The specialist was incredibly knowledgeable and worked tirelessly to diagnose my issue. Again, the biggest issue was the cost of prescription drugs, which ended up costing well over $300 US.

In the months after my appointment I have been in communication with the specialist via text message (something that would never happen with a Canadian doctor!) and she has given me advice and asked me to get other tests, all without having to visit her office again.

Unfortunately I went downhill again after my initial visit with the specialist and I’m back for another round of tests, this time including an allergy test. As it turns out I’m almost certainly deathly allergic to corn, at least in certain forms. At one point I was almost completely unable to breath after having a homemade arepa, made out of nothing but ground corn and water. Popcorn gave me a similar reaction. It seems pretty certain that corn will not be part of my diet anytime soon.

I haven’t had a chance to get the allergy test yet, that is hopefully on the calendar for next week, but since eliminating corn army my diet I am back to feeling much better again.

Living in a Latin American country, where corn is a staple, it’s often hard to avoid. But being celiac I’m well versed in ways to eliminate specific foods from my diet – avoiding corn is just an extra thing to watch out for.

Now that I’m not consuming any corn, wheat, dairy, sugar or alcohol I’m feeling much better and losing weight like mad. I’m down to 124 pounds and I think this is closer to my natural body weight now that all of the things my body finds toxic have been eliminated. If you get rid of all the inflammation and bloating all that’s left is a healthy body. And seriously, it’s hard to be chubby when you aren’t eating wheat, corn and dairy! Think of one of your favourite foods and you can pretty much guarantee that one of those three ingredients are in every single one of them.

Breakfast is quite a bit different now – it’s usually just a plate of fruit and the occasional bowl of rice. However, I’ve started experimenting with a few different flat bread recipes and will post the results if they turn out. Fingers crossed!