Belize: A brief a study in contrasts

Belize is a beautiful country on the outside but plagued with corrupt governance, 45% poverty, failing infrastructure and high overall cost of living in comparison to its neighbours. It also has one of the highest global homicide rates, and regionally the highest per capita consumption of alchohol and marijuana, and the highest AIDS prevalence. The country is bankrupt and on the verge of becoming a failing state. These are things you don’t read about on International Living.

Belize has a relatively well established two tier medical care delivery system-a private and public sector. The latter is free of charge.The government operates hospitals or poly clinics in every major city and town and in other major population centers such as large villages. My medical experiences there was previously described in Belize Medico. However, Belize does not meet the same standards of medical care as can be found in North America or the European Union. Not even remotely, (unless of course, you are privileged).

Not long after arriving in country in ’05, I was asked to attend the care of the father of a senior politician at the time. This came about as I was teaching a course at the Belize Medical College and the administrator passed on my name to his assistant who was active in the political party that he belonged to. Belize is a small place and has a population of 350k and so there is a jungle telegraph of sorts.

I was brought to his home by a government worker in a nice air conditioned Toyota Prius popular with the elected officials while the locals made do with old school buses retired from Texas or on the bed of pick up trucks. Their home was surprisingly modest from the outside but ornate and nicely furnished and decorated inside. I was quickly brought to the old fellows’ bedside by two personal support workers.

It was very clear that he had had a severe stroke and had already seen a neurologist. However a second opinion was requested and so here I was. After a quick examination I came to the astute conclusion that pop had indeed suffered a severe stroke centered around the pons in the upper brainstem. This meant he was going to remain in a vegetative state probably chronically. I passed on the news to the son who was not surprised. Before leaving I was fed tea and cake and then driven back to the office. I followed up a month later and he was still alive thanks to IV fluids and rotating shifts of private nurses and assistants.

At a later date I looked after the girlfriend of a married senior government bureaucrat whom I observed to be in a hysterical conversion state of paralysis after he told her he couldn’t marry her. Once again I was chauffered in a Prius (the favourite government mode of transport) to the young ladies home. Mom greeted me and fed me as per custom. After some initial tranquilization and a lot of therapy things sorted out and she was able to vent her anger at being rejected and was going to try to find a younger more available companion.

In contrast to these early experiences I spent much of my time living in a little fishing village where people often dropped by for free medical advice and beer. A young girl in an anxious state and in barefeet dropped by one day and asked me to visit her home some 6 blocks west. It was around 2pm and 90 degrees F with 80% humidity so I grabbed my bag and walked with my young companion, leaving puddles of sweat behind me. Around this time of day I preferred to lay around by the waterfront concentrating on avoiding the exertion associated with breathing without ensuing heat stroke.

The house seemed like a large shed, with electricity borrowed via an extension cord rigged to a nearby utility pole. Water came from a well with buckets. There was a family of four waiting and the patient was grandpa who was comatose on the “bed”. The floor was a mix of concrete and dirt. There was a torn sofa and bare wooden tables. Overhead hung a bare bulb which only served to contribute to my heat prostration.

As it turned out the old man had the identical stroke to my first patient. This was not surprising as chronic hypertension and diabetes were endemic in Belize. There wasn’t much to do but wait for the inevitable under those conditions. I tried to explain the situation to a growing number of relations in a mix of medical Spanish and broken English with everybody wailing. Despite their obvious grinding poverty they fed and watered me generously and offered money which I refused, being a good Canadian socialist. Papa died a few days later.

My last anecdote centers around this fellow who wondered around every street in the village, hobbling along on a cane. Everyday he did this around 10 am. He had just shown up one day in town out of nowhere and crashed in empty houses and sheds. The ladies of the village fed him regularly as is customary. Later on I found out he was from nearby Mexico and a former psychiatric patient probably schizophrenic. He rarely uttered a word.

One very hot day one of his caretakers came by and asked me if I could have a look at him as he was ill and had not moved in a day or so. Well he was a bit cold and as it turned out he had no pulse or corneal reflex. Not good signs. I learned in med school that that usually meant the patient was dead.

The next procedure was intriguing as the villagers placed candles around his body along with mothballs as a preservative. A cloth was stuffed in his mouth and two coins on his eyes. The former was to prevent soul loss prior to burial and the latter to pay the gatekeeper to the afterlife. This was borrowed from Mayan tradition as most of the villagers were Mestizo and blended Catholic beliefs with paganism.

Everyone contributed to his coffin and funeral cost and he had a nice service and burial. There was lots of good eats like cochinita pibil (, contraband Mexican beer and partying.
No one ever really knew his name.

Bienvenido a Belice.




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One Response to “Belize: A brief a study in contrasts”

  1. kristina nadreau says:

    the country is worse off than ever.

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