An American's nightmare in a Mexican hospital

A recent vacation in Mexico turned into a nightmare for a 79-year-old Illinois man. But it wasn't a devastating bus crash that almost killed U.S.-born Alfonso Acosta.

It was his stay in one of Mexico's government-run hospitals.

According to a harrowing account in the Quad-City Times, a daily newspaper, Acosta suffered a "major head injury, multiple facial fractures, broken ribs and a punctured lung."  Yet for five weeks he lay "virtually untreated" at the hospital where he was taken in Toluca, about 40 miles southwest from Mexico City, say outraged family members in the United States who rushed to his bedside.

They found him in a hospital room with six other patients. They barely recognized him: His head was grotesquely swollen and his urine contained clotted blood from an improperly placed catheter.  Alarmed at his deteriorating condition and by the indifferent and seemingly incompetent medical personnel who were treating him, family members began caring for Acosta themselves, all while dealing with medical personnel who were unable or unwilling to speak English.

Acosta's family members said they quickly learned that Mexico's government-run hospitals are far different than hospitals here. Medical provisions -- X-rays, blood work, and other hospital supplies -- had to be paid for up front, they said; and so they made regular trips to a local pharmacy to buy medicines or gauze. Eventually, they concluded the hospital wanted to keep Acosta bedridden for as long as possible in order to jack up his bill.

"The longer he stayed, the more money the hospital would get," Acosta's daughter Gina Lieferman, a sheriff's deputy in Iowa, was quoted as saying in the article, "Moline Man's Nightmare Vacation to Mexico."

"I accused them of holding dad hostage. It was a ransom situation," she said, adding: "The whole system operates on bribes and threats. At one point, I yelled, 'You're murdering my father!'"

Even as Acosta's condition deteriorated, hospital officials refused to discharge him, and it eventually took the intervention of the family's representative in Illinois, Congressman Bobby Schilling, a Republican, to discharge him and arrange for an air- ambulance flight to Houston.

A representative from Schilling's office, Andrea Pivarunas, was quoted as saying:

"There is no question that the family encountered an extremely challenging situation and that the Mexican government was of little help. Beyond being grateful we could help them overcome those challenges, we are looking at what can be done to help reduce the chance that others (could) go through what Mr. Acosta and his family endured for far too long."

The Acosta family also complained that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico failed to provide them with proper support, but Embassy officials said they did all they normally do.

The family's nightmare ended when Acosta was finally flown to a Houston hospital where he started to immediately receive the medical care that was never provided in Mexico. As the Quad-City Times explains:

When the jet carrying Acosta and Lieferman arrived at a Houston hospital, medical staff asked for his records from the hospital at Toluca.

"There was one page - one side of one sheet of paper," Mike Lieferman said. "After all those weeks in the hospital, there was nothing but a few notes."

Gina Lieferman hand carried a few X-rays, some of which contained stains from hospital workers setting their coffee cups on them.

Acosta's throat was in bad shape, probably from weeks of being on a ventilator tube, Lieferman said. Although doctors in Mexico had repeatedly declared he needed a tracheotomy, the procedure never was done.

"He got one in Houston almost immediately," Lieferman said. "The doctors in Mexico said his worst problem was a lung infection. The doctors in Houston had a different answer.

"They said his biggest problem was going all those weeks without treatment for his injuries. He spent his first week in Houston in the ICU."

The Quad-City Times' article is interesting on a number of levels, including how the nightmare story it tells contrasts with the excellent and humane emergency care that Mexicans -- including illegal and indigent immigrants - can count on getting at American hospitals, with medical personnel even making it a point to speak "medical Spanish" or having full-time translators available. Indeed, as the New York Times noted in an article in 2008 about larger numbers of poor immigrants seeking medical care at hospitals in the northeast, including Greenwich, Connecticut:

The number of illegal immigrants seeking emergency care at Greenwich has sharply increased since 2005 after the closing of United Hospital in the nearby Village of Port Chester, a community across the border in New York that has a high proportion of poor and working-class immigrants. In the year after United's closing, Greenwich's maternity load soared to 2,300 from 1,400.

Hospitals across New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut all report struggling with the costs of delivering emergency care and sometimes more to illegal immigrants and other uninsured patients, and many see it as their obligation.

The story of Alfonso Acosta's nightmare in a government-run Mexican hospital is worth considering the next time a self-serving Mexican official or open-borders advocate complains about how badly Mexican nationals are being treated in this country.