From the get-go, nothing happened as I had expected. It is hard to estimate how someone from an indigenous rural town in Ecuador will react when arriving in New York, the most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States. Certainly, it’s been done before; the New York area has the highest Ecuadorian population outside of Ecuador. However, it is usually the young people who emigrate from Ecuador, not their parents or grandparents. Well, my concern began as soon as I saw Rodrigo, Baltazar and Carmen through the doors of the airport.
The first issue was Carmen’s cough. It was a hard cough that resounded deep from her lungs. She looked worried and so did Baltazar. They stayed close, clinging to one another’s clothes. Rodrigo leaned over to me and said, “We have a little bit of a problem.” All my hopes for the trip—of bringing Baltazar to New York for the premiere of The Last Ice Merchant, of a grand cultural exchange, of sharing new experiences and foods—flashed before my eyes and then dissolved into one immediate concern: What if this was a terrible idea? Questions of doubt raced through my mind. Who was I to interrupt people’s lives and take them out of their familiar zones—their homes and communities—and bring them to a place they’d never been and where they don’t speak the language? They have hard lives to begin with, why do they need this extra stress? Why did I think they would like New York in the first place? What if something happens to them because of me? How could I tell their families?
We did the only thing we could do at that point: move forward. We collected the luggage and I drove them to the apartment I had rented for them in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It must have been a strange experience for Baltazar and Carmen as we entered their apartment. It was a railroad style unit on the third floor of a brownstone. It seemed as if they didn’t even know what to do with themselves. We encouraged them to relax and sit on the couch. They poked at the couch and then awkwardly sat, looking around to see what would happen next and what was expected of them. It was immediately apparent that everything would require cultural translation. Not only do Baltazar and Carmen not have couches in their homes in Ecuador, but their day-to-day lives don’t include time to relax and lounge around on couches. Sitting in one place and doing nothing seemed not only unfamiliar but stressful to them. On top of that, Carmen was still coughing and Baltazar continued to look worried about it. We retrieved Carmen’s knitting supplies from the luggage to help keep her hands busy and take her mind off of things. Rodrigo and I talked and decided that the best thing to do would be to regroup after a night of sleep and see how things looked in the morning.
The next morning I was awoken at 5:30 by the phone call. It was Rodrigo. He told me that they hadn’t slept all night and that we should go to the hospital. Carmen’s cough had persisted and her heart felt like it was burning. Apparently, she had lost her appetite and hadn’t eaten in weeks, subsisting only on water. Without brushing my teeth, changing my clothes or eating a bite, I jumped into my car and headed to Crown Heights.
There are many factors in Carmen’s lifestyle that could contribute to her sickness. First, nutrition isn’t a consideration where she lives. The diet consists of what is available and cheap; potatoes and white rice make up a large portion of every meal. Second, the tradition is to cook inside over an open fire. Homes fill up with thick smoke within minutes of cooking, making it hard to breath. Consequently, lung problems are very common in the area. Each home is generally one room, so the kitchen is also the bedroom. So if a dinner fills the home with smoke, then everyone must continue to breath it throughout the night. On top of that, Carmen rarely has time to rest between working in the field, tending to animals and taking care of her family.
Rodrigo, Baltazar and Carmen were sitting on the stoop of the brownstone waiting for me. I took them to the emergency room of a nearby hospital where she was admitted. Doctors immediately started performing tests. As the tests progressed—blood work, urine work, EKG, x-rays, multiple doctors—it dawned on me that we had yet another obstacle ahead of us: the bill. The work was easily adding up to thousands of dollars.
Once all the tests were complete, the doctors reached a diagnosis. The good news was that Carmen’s heart appeared healthy and her lungs also appeared in good condition. She did have some darker areas on the top of her lungs that were likely caused by breathing so much fire smoke. In the end, the doctors diagnosed her with constipation and heart burn that were most likely aggravated by stress (which, when combined, could very well make you feel as if you were having a heart attack). The news lightened the mood of the day. We were then faced with the concern of the bill.
When we had arrived at the ER, I had to show my ID to check Carmen in. I was in the system. But with a little searching, I found someone and, with a brief explanation of the situation, this person pulled me aside and said that if they help, I couldn’t tell anybody who did it. Within minutes, my address and phone number were changed in the digital records and we walked out of the hospital. Our secret ally had left us with these words: “Let Obama pay for it.”
In the end, the opportunity to go to a hospital was a blessing in disguise. Carmen had been to a hospital in Riobamba, Ecuador previously because of heart pain. There they had concluded that she had a heart problem and that, in the not too distant future, she would need an operation. Everything that the New York doctors told us refuted that claim. We have papers now showing the state of her health and we have guidelines for how to help.
Within a couple days of following the doctors’ orders, Carmen was feeling better, more energetic and hungry at last. It may have been a rocky start to the trip, but I genuinely believe that going through this was one of the best things that could happen for Carmen in the long run. Plus, I was able to swipe a few extra pairs of the non-slip hospital socks that Baltazar had admired, which will surely help keep his feet warm on Chimborazo.