can be less painful (financially) abroad
Gastroenteritis sidelined me for a few days in India. While jogging
on an Australian beach, I suffered a bad ankle sprain. I’ve
experienced food poisoning in French Polynesia, a bacterial infection
in Spain, garden-variety aches and pains from Lithuania to Brazil.
Due to luck and circumstance, my overseas maladies have been minor.
But during a recent stay in Buenos Aires, circumstance caught up
Here in Argentina’s bustling capital, the public buses, colectivos,
slow down but don’t always stop before allowing passengers
to disembark. The day after my first tango lesson, I leapt from a
rolling colectivo and twisted my knee.
Within hours, the knee had swollen to nearly twice its normal size.
It felt as though acid had been loaded into a syringe and injected
through a hole in my knee cap. ¡Qué dolor!
With the help of a friend, I limped to Centro de Ortopedia y Traumatologia,
a top-notch private facility in barrio Belgrano. For only 50 pesos
($16), an orthopedic specialist examined my knee. The doctor said
I probably tore my meniscus. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
exam would let us know for sure.
I hobbled to a diagnostic facility, submitted to the MRI, showed
the results to three orthopedic surgeons. Each doctor delivered the
same bad news. My meniscus suffered a significant tear. The lightning
bolts of pain were caused by a piece of dislodged cartilage that
partially “blocked” the knee, making it impossible to
straighten my leg.
Arthroscopic surgery was my only alternative.
Therein lay a dilemma. My insurance company does not cover
medical expenses in Argentina. If I returned to the United
States, the company
would pay 80% of the costs after I paid a $500 deductible. And
yet, the low cost of medical care in Argentina (for anyone
with U.S. dollars)
made me consider having surgery here.
At Centro de Ortopedia, for example, I paid a grand total of $9.67
for two knee X-rays. The MRI set me back $102. Separate consultations
by three different orthopedic surgeons cost a combined $80.
Dr. Tomas Vilaseca, a highly-recommended surgeon at Hospital Britanico,
quoted $1,200 for the surgery. Hospital fees ($377), a pre-op electrocardiogram
($7) and blood tests ($19) would bring my total cash outlay to
In the United States, arthroscopic knee surgery can cost as much
as $5,000. An MRI ranges from about $500 to more than $2,000. (My
mother recently had an MRI in Chicago. Her insurance covered almost
all of the $2,400 price tag.)
Unfortunately, my insurance coverage is not as comprehensive as
My out-of-pocket costs for surgery-related expenses could tally
more than $2,000. Add that to the cost of a round-trip flight from
Aires to Chicago, plus a $900 forfeiture on the vacation apartment
I rented, and the dollars begin to stack up.
Undergoing arthroscopic surgery in Argentina would save me time
and money. The doctors here are as competent as their counterparts
the United States. Dr. Vilaseca, who performs the procedure several
times each week, sealed the deal by outlining details in textbook
But before going under the arthroscope, I visited a public hospital.
I was surprised to learn that Hospital Durán, like all public
hospitals in Argentina, offers 24-hour emergency medical service
at no charge. Even to foreigners. I was also surprised by conditions
at the hospital.
There were gaping holes in some of the walls. Exposed pipes in
a damaged ceiling. Patients stood in queues that seemed to go on
When I finally spoke with a hospital representative, she said I’d
have to wait at least two months for an appointment to see a doctor.
Hospital Britanico, on the other hand, is private and therefore
tidier and more efficient. Surgery was scheduled a few days after
On the big day, I was carted to the operating room 20 minutes ahead
Virtually every hospital employee—administrators,
nurses, orderlies, the anesthesiologist—treated me with a
brand of warm professionalism that made me feel like family.
Dr. Vilaseca led the five-member surgical team. One by one, the
doctors filed into the O.R., kissing one another on the cheek as
in Argentina. They gathered around as I lay on the operating table.
Dr. Vilaseca’s English commentary rose above the Latin love
songs drifting from a laptop computer.
I’d been given local anesthesia and opted to watch the surgery
on a TV monitor. A tiny snake-like instrument poked through an
incision, chewing away bits of my damaged meniscus. A second instrument
the rough edges. It was a fascinating 30-minute operation. Successful
and completely painless.
Three weeks later I took my second tango lesson. I still can’t
get the hang of Argentina’s signature dance. But the knee?
It works just fine.
Medical tourism companies help uninsured
and under-insured customers obtain low-cost surgery
in foreign countries. Healthbase (www.healthbase.com)
and Globe Health Tours (www.globehealthtours.com),
offer packages that include transportation, accommodation
and more than 200 medical procedures (arthroscopy,
hip/knee replacement, heart valve replacement,
breast augmentation, etc…). India, Thailand,
Singapore and Mexico are popular destinations.
For orthopedic procedures in Buenos Aires, Hospital
Britanico (www.hospitalbritanico.com.ar) accepts
patients on a walk-in basis.