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— The nurses attending me were scandalized. Never before had a doctor specifically ordered that a patient be allowed access to the garden. Normally, all patients were confined to the floor, with a security guard posted at every exit to prevent patients from fleeing the hospital without paying. To ensure that I did not run off during my daily outings, I was required to wear two white, collarless flowing hospital gowns -- one facing front, one covering my rear -- and flip-flops. And I had to check in and out at the nurses' station. I looked like a morbidly obese ghost or a Ku Klux Klansman whose sartorial political statement had gone awry. In short, I was a ridiculous figure. One afternoon I overstayed my allotted 15 minutes, and a nurse was dispatched to retrieve me. "If you run off, I'm the one who will get into trouble," she scolded. Another morning, a walkie-talkie-equipped security guard carrying a clipboard to note unusual events asked me my name and room number. He noted these in his report, also recording the time and location, obviously worried that he might have trouble on his hands. The guard then called the nurses' station to check up on me. Once he received assurances from the head nurse that it was "part of the patient's treatment," he gave me a little salute and wished me a quick recovery.

When I was not off on one of my brief tastes of freedom, I spent hours sitting on the side of my bed, chatting with the nurses, who had come to work in Tijuana from all over Mexico. Bertha, a chubby, short woman whose curves strained the seams of her uniform, told me that she was from Veracruz, at the opposite end and opposite coast of the country. Bertha's smile revealed a missing tooth, but she didn't seem troubled by it. She was perhaps the most chatty of the nurses, volunteering that she had three children, one awaiting a kidney transplant that she was saving up to pay for, which is why, she said, she worked two jobs. Her husband, to whom she has been married for 21 years, worked as a carpenter, but even with three incomes, life was a struggle. "Two of my sons are in high school, and you know that costs money," she said. Although Mexican law guarantees free public education, the law is rarely observed. Parents are asked to pay for tuition, books, the mandatory uniforms that are a feature from kindergarten through prep school, and for the upkeep of the school building and grounds. Still, Bertha was always smiling, happy because, she said, Tijuana has jobs -- plenty of them, for anyone willing to work. Hospital Angeles, part of a nationwide chain of hospitals owned by the same company that operates the five-star Camino Real resort hotel chain from its corporate headquarters in Mexico City, pays her 3000 pesos every two weeks, about $280 at the current rate of exchange, or $140 a week. A one-night stay at Hospital Angeles, billed at $277, nearly pays her salary for two weeks

Osvaldo was a young male nurse, maybe 28 years old, from Sinaloa, a state along Mexico's central coast best known for the resort city of Mazatlán -- and for its marijuana crop, drug-trafficking, and narco-corridos, a kind of folk music glorifying the life of drug smugglers. Osvaldo had come to Tijuana for the same reason as Bertha -- to work. He wore too much cologne and was fastidious about his uniform. It was precisely pressed and fit him as if tailor-made, which, with his close-cropped haircut, gave him a vaguely military look. For some reason, all the male nurses wore white pants and lime-colored smocks, while the women wore white skirts and light-blue blouses. Nurses' aides wore a navy-blue uniform. "I wish I were home," Osvaldo told me. "But there is no work there, and even if you can find work, it does not pay anywhere near what they pay here in Tijuana. There is a lot more opportunity here, more than anywhere else in Mexico." Osvaldo often used late-night visits to my room to review messages on his cellular phone. He seemed to get a lot of calls.

Denorah, an older nurse's aide, probably in her early 60s, was the friendliest of all those who attended me. Just below the windows that faced the garden was a narrow sofa with foam cushions covered in a rough, faintly blue fabric. In other rooms, family members of patients used the sofa to sleep on so they could remain at the side of their hospitalized loved one. I had no loved ones geographically close enough to take advantage of the sofa and suspected the nurses had taken note of that and tried to fill in as best they could. Besides, I had discouraged friends in Tijuana from visiting -- it was an affront to my pride for anyone to see me in such a pathetic and helpless state. Denorah would sit on the sofa and talk to me for 30 minutes every day. She had short, straight black hair and hard, angular Indian features that defined a mournful face suggesting she had long led a tough life. She would hold my hand, caress my head, and tell me, "Pobrecito. Everything is going to be okay." Sometimes she patted me in much the same way you might pat a dog -- but I enjoyed the attention, was comforted by it. Denorah was from Oaxaca, a southern Mexican state that in recent months has been torn apart by political unrest -- massive demonstrations, strikes by teachers and government employees, riots over rising tortilla prices, shootouts between the government and radical leftists. She worried about her family back home, she said, hinting that she sided with the leftists: "In the U.S., you have rights. In Oaxaca, no. You never know what is going to happen to you. People think Tijuana is bad, but it is nothing compared to Oaxaca. The rich stay rich and the poor suffer, and suffer more." But, said Denorah, she had her hands full now in Tijuana, where she, her husband, and her family of eight children had moved seven years ago. No looking back now, she said. Tijuana was her home.

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pampal Sept. 22, 2008 @ 11:49 p.m.

I also am an American living in Mexico and loving it. Agree with the author about the medical care. Since I have no med insurance I receive all my care here and agree that the standard of care is as good as, and even surpasses the care I have received in the US. The doctors here do spend so much more time with me and seem to be more thorough and LISTEN. I have had nothing but great experiences with both dentists and MDs. A nagging bladder infection was cleared up after years of suffering under the care of an Hermosillo urologist. A son in law found relief with a simple cream subscribed by a dermatologist for his bad case of phoriasis (sp?), and this after considerable expensive care in the US. The Cima Hospital in Hermosillo is one of the best and comparable to any US hospital, but at a cost of 25% to 50% of what a US hospital charges. Our friends are shocked that my husband and I get our medical needs taken care of in Mexico!


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