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My 49 Year Old Boyfriend Had a Heart Attack In Belize

About one week ago, Jeff was laying in a hospital bed at the Cardiac Center at Buttonwood Bay in Belize City recovering from a heart attack.  He had a brand new 4mm x 18mm (less than an inch in length) stent – or titanium tube – placed in a major offshoot of his left anterior coronary artery.

The left anterior descending coronary artery is also known as “the widowmaker” since it supplies over 40% of the blood to your heart.

That might be the only photo you get in this blog post.

Good news:  this procedure can be done – and was done – in Belize

Bad news:  there is little to no information out there and we had a very scary and for Jeff, VERY PAINFUL, 48 hours before we got to exactly where we needed to be

Jeff is now feeling so much better and on his way to a full recovery but I think it’s important (now that I’ve had a chance to breathe) to get the information out there.  SO MANY PEOPLE think about coming here to retire and ask about medical care.

Here are the facts.

Belize is a very small, developing (slowly) country.  SO when it is EMERGENCY TIME, you may hear something like “all the cardiologists are out of the country”.  There is a huge disparity in the facilities and care you can or will receive.  And for some things, like heart issues or other life and death issues, that can be the difference between public facilities and private facilities.  And for private facilities, that may mean you need to have several thousand dollars available (cash or credit card) to even walk in the door.  Or be carried in the door.

Here are the Jeff specific facts

Jeff is 49 years old.  Active. No blood pressure issue (in fact one of the nurses at Buttonwood Bay said he had “young bwai pressa”) and no cholesterol issues that we know of.  His father DID have two heart attacks in his early and mid-50s.  He is also a planner and one who tends to stress about things (girlfriend diagnosis)

So here is my experience.  From my perspective.  And what I learned.

I’ll try to keep the build up short.  Jeff traveled to Northern British Columbia for 2 weeks of hiking and fishing in the wilds on and around the Babine River.  Just a few days before he returned, he described a tough day fishing and thought he might have overdone it – and pulled/torn something in his shoulder.

The pain ebbed and flowed…Advil made it better…and some at the remote river lodge (you are flown in and out by helicopter) suggested it might be something more….but Jeff was sure, pretty sure, it was his shoulder.

On the flights back to Belize – Smithers – Vancouver – Los Angeles – Houston – Belize City – San Pedro – the pain worsened and at one point, he got a cart ride to his gate when lugging his heavy carry-on became unbearable

It felt like breathing in ICY cold air (which was more apparent as he moved geographically south) and burning pain but hard to distinguish…was it left shoulder or chest?

He landed in San Pedro and we right over to Dr Dan’s office.  Dr. Dan Gonzalez is Jeff’s doctor – he is a very popular doctor in San Pedro – and he’s also a trained OB/GYN.  (Super fun to tease Jeff about his gynecologist.

Dr Dan’s been working on the island for YEARS – and personifies what is so great about medical care in Belize.  You can get him on the phone night or day.  You can just pop into his office with questions or for an appointment.

It is NOT like the states where EVERY request is met with “Well…maybe the doctor can squeeze you in a week from Thursday after hours”

Dr Dan has doctors that help him out – he has a weekend internist, he has a psychiatrist and addiction specialist he works with.  We met with Dr Sylva, a lovely Cuban internist who works during the week in Belize City.

After checking Jeff and listening to his heart – he agreed that it was most likely his shoulder and we went home with some muscle relaxers and pain killers.  But a few hours later…Jeff woke from a nap and was doubled over in pain.

“We need to go to the doctor RIGHT NOW”  I called Dr Sylva and he told us to come back to town immediately.  We did.  Jeff was in excruciating pain and a 7 miles BUMPY ride in the golf cart was harrowing.

Saturday night, Halloween party night – about 7pm.  The air strip is closed.  And there were no cardiologists available in Belize City – so flying is going to get us nowhere.

We (Jeff and the doctors) decided he would stay the night at the doctor’s office and fly out first thing in the morning.  Heparin (a blood thinner).  Morphine and a brutal night.  Jeff and Doctor Sylva were up much of it.

I got a call from Dr Dan at about 6am to come to town immediately…”Jeff had a heart attack during the night”.  At 6.30am, Jeff flew to Belize City – and Karl Heusner Medical Hospital – on Wings of Hope air ambulance.  I was on the next flight on Tropic Air.

The doctors in San Pedro could not reach a cardiologist in Belize – and it was decided that this was the best place to keep him stable.

Karl Huesner is the main hospital in Belize City – in fact, it is the only hospital.  It has a reputation for being crowded and hectic and understaffed and we found it to be all of those things.

We were moved into the emergency room – with about 15 other beds – and Jeff was again put on Heparin and morphine and blood was taken.  I was sent out with the test to one of the private clinics (Belize Medical Associates)  – to find if he had actually had a “heart attack”.

He stayed overnight in the ER (no beds were available on the ward) and the next morning, I was sent out with a prescription for Aspirin and Plavex.

Two of the most basic drugs given to those who are suffering from heart problems.  The hospital had neither in stock.  They haven’t had aspirin for months.

It was time to go.  The few doctors I spoke to at KHMH did not want to give advice about what I should do or where I might find better help.  I was getting desperate – especially when I couldn’t find a doctor or nurse to help when Jeff was having a wave of unbearable pain.

Should we try to fly to the US or to Mexico.  Can he even be moved?  IF YOUR MOTHER WAS IN THIS SITUATION, WHAT WOULD YOU DO!   One doctor told me that he was not allowed to answer that question.  It was indeed time to go.

I called Dr Sylva (the internist who weekends in San Pedro and works at KHMS during the week) and he came from elsewhere in the hospital to help us – he contacted Dr Gough at the Cardiology Center of Belize.  He called the ambulance ($60bzd paid in cash when you get out) – and we were out of there.

Just a few blocks away but…a world away.  As soon as we got to Dr Gough’s clinic…we were surrounded by nurses, with the doctor to meet us…things changed in a significant way.

The total bill at KHMH was handed to us on the way out.  One night stay in the ER:  $25bzd.  The testing, the EKGs they had done, were an additional $218bzd.

But they just do not have the technology or the resources or even the medication to diagnose heart problems or to fix them.

At the Cardiac Center we had our own room, our own bathroom and shower, a couch that was comfortable to sleep on – meals for both of us, nurses checking in hourly, a button to call at night.  Just the change in Jeff’s anxiety made SUCH a huge difference.

He almost instantly fell asleep something that he really hadn’t done since leaving Canada three days before.

The next morning, Jeff was wheeled downstairs for a coronary angiogram.  The clinic has not just one room with the massive equipment and crazy technology it takes to do this procedure but two.  A back-up in case something malfunctions…

Basically a thin thin wire is sent up thru the wrist (in Jeff’s case) to the heart – dye is injected and an X-Ray machine can watch the flow.  To see if you have any blockages.

Jeff did.  2 in fact.   An almost complete blockage in that LAD artery that would need to be opened right away.

They would do the procedure that night.  A colleague, another cardiologist traveled from Guadalajara, Mexico with the stent – and to assist in the procedure.  Dr Gough went to pick him up in Chetumal.

Jeff went downstairs again at 10pm.  And returned just over an hour later.  In pain…but that was to be expected.  The artery – that had probably been closing slowly for YEAR – was open and everything was stretching out.

He ended up having one stent put it and a situation called “No Reflow” that I can’t explain at this juncture but it meant that the second one did not need to be placed.

Jeff rested and rested and rested.  We both ate the meals prepared for the clinic by Dr Gough’s mother-in-law and rested.  Jeff and I left the clinic in a taxi and to the flight back to San Pedro 24 hours later.

Ready for more rest and a SLOW return to the San Pedro run-around that we call life.

Not even processing how lucky we are that Jeff spent the night with Dr Dan and Dr Sylva at their office on blood thinners instead of coming home.

I can not tell you enough good things about Dr Dan and Dr Sylva in San Pedro or rave enough about Dr Gough – who is answering emails within minutes and spent so much time explaining the procedure and the recovery to us and answering questions.  Even providing Jeff’s mom information via email.

We will visit him again tomorrow for one-week check out.  And again in the future…

The final diagnosis was that Jeff had severe unstable angina (heart is not getting enough blood) – but that it wasn’t actually a heart attack or…it was a minor one.  I don’t care what it’s called.  Watching someone you love go through that sort of prolonged pain is…miserable.

PLEASE read Robert Hawkin’s write-up on a VERY SIMILAR situation where he goes thru his “almost heart attack”, an angiogram with Dr Gough and also his scheduled stent surgery a few months later.  His costs were very similar to ours.

Also check out his medical care in Merida, Mexico for information about traveling for medical assistance.

I’m left with so many feelings…I’m pretty sure that I can’t wrap this up in tidy bow.   The unfairness that great medical care is just blocks away from KHMH but so many can not afford it…gratitude…relief…the punch in the face realizing we are getting old…that tomorrow is not promised to us at all…I need to start getting checked…

Also the desire to learn more about medical care in Belize.  Not a great idea to wait until shit hits the fan to look into it.

I’ll report back on what I learn…





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23 thoughts on “My 49 Year Old Boyfriend Had a Heart Attack In Belize

  1. Kim

    That is quite the story! How much did you guys owe the Cardiac Clinic for staying, angio, stent etc? I hope Jeff is feeling better every day!

  2. Rob

    Good luck to Jeff, brings back memories of my father a few years ago. My parents had retired to rural Eastern Washington and my dad then had a heart attack. My mom driving like a mad woman to the nearest hospital, only they didn’t have cardiologist or anything. So they had to load him an ambulance to go to the metropolis of Walla Walla. Cardiologist in Walla Walla said 5 more minutes and he’d have died. Did the stent thing, but still ended up having to have bypass surgery later. My parents have since moved into a town. Once again, hope all goes better for Jeff.

  3. Michael McFarlin

    Great Article Rebecca. I’ve always been concerned about accessible medical care in San Pedro. You are so lucky you knew people that could help. Imagine being a tourist/guest and not knowing anyone. Yikes.

  4. FJL

    Wow…Best of luck and I’m positive this will have a happy ending. I know someone who left for Merida for good because of too many health issues. Advanced care will only get better in Belize and on Ambergris Caye.

  5. Robert Dino

    Hi , I hope Jeff is doing well and recovering . I don’t mean to pry but I would like to know how much the life saving proceedure cost ?

  6. Robert Dino

    I will be moving to San Pedro soon , we are in the process of building on a lot we bought a few years ago so you can understand why I would be interested in medical care and costs in Belize .

      1. Robert Dino

        I am Canadian , our winters are long and harsh , six months of snow and cold may look nice Christmas Day but trust me by February after four months it’s time for some fun in the sun .

          1. Robert Dino

            Thank you for your response , if you don’t mind I would like to know why ? I would appreciate any knowledge you have gain in your 28 years there , I am about to spend a lot of my hard earned dollars to build my winter home in Belize . I would really appreciate a ” heads up ” to any and all concerns I should be made aware of , thanks again .
            Cheers from a fellow puck chasing maple syrup pea meal loving Canuck

          2. anonymooseSPmQQse

            murderers, thieves, corrupt politicians, induced poverty. destruction of the environment, pollution of the environment, uselerss and corrupt police, and too many greedy gringos , and a host of other stuff….that is depleting the future generations of belizean’s profit margin potential/future.

          3. Robert Dino

            Thank you for your response , wow I didnt know it was that bad . I hope you are safe where you live ? I was planning to build in San Pedro , are you on the island or on the mainland ? I will now definitely have to consider what you said , especially the destruction of the environment .

          4. anonymoose

            I can only speak to where I know.
            safe where I live……maybe….so far… [touch wood].
            altho I did have a guy sharpen his machete with a file … rt outside my door, 17 ft., up a ladder… at aprox 2:30 in the morning…..
            but that pales to the attempted murder , when a thug/convicted murderer, smashed aprox. 42% of my upper scull into pieces, and left me for dead. still kickin tho…!!!
            last year on the island 14 murders…8 I knew, 3 were friends.
            I don’t like loosing friends to crime here.
            most expats read the tourist brochure as the only aspect of life here… but like everywhere…these days… the darker side has grown .
            most people see the beauty in belize, in many ways…and many of those ways are being altered/damaged with/by the growth of tourism/immigration, and the development that it causes.
            oh…and the poverty and what goes with it….
            induced poverty, should not be tolerated any more throughout the world, but we have that too.
            I came to this island not as a tourist….
            I came to live with the sanpedranna/o….
            now they are few compared to the 30-ish thousand foreigners…..most of who I will not, socialize with.
            your concern for the environment is commendable…thank you…!!!
            yes there are so-called protected areas..where nature is supposed to be safe from any interaction that could damage it….and they are a-plenty too….but here, as with many other special and unique parts of the world…protection needs more than a line or two on a map.
            I could go on and on…but….. all the truths are out there on the internet…
            [yah gets whats yah search for…..most often].

          5. Robert Dino

            Thanks again for the heads up .
            I am coming to San Pedro in January from the 15 to 24 , I would be very happy to buy you a pint and share your invaluable experience with my buddy and I . Please let me know if this is agreeable to you . First hand experience is what we really need , id rather learn from yours than make all my own mistakes lol . There are so many questions and concerns that need to be asked since your warning . Looking forward to sharing a cold one or two


            Sent from my iPad

          6. anonymooseSPmQQse

            I don’t do alcohol….but a fresh juice….you-betcha……
            I never mind at all….telling it like it actually is…rather than as the brochure tells it.
            keep reading the news papers from belize…..many tell it like it is…some don’t.
            maybe we’ll meet in jan. to talk about the good…and there is lots of it…the bad-a-plenty and certainly the ugly…theres a shit-ton of that,especially when it comes to the environment.

          7. Robert Dino

            But on a serious note , I’m not as concerned about being mugged as I am of a home invasion in the middle of the night .

          8. Robert Dino

            I glad to see we both share the same concerns when it comes to San Pedro Belize , I was wondering how to get in contact with you once I settle in and unpack . I thought we might exchange phone numbers or email addresses if that is agreeable to you ? Cheers


            Sent from my iPad

  7. Linda Young

    I’m so sorry that you both had to go thru this. I’m sure that you will put your experience to good use with the help of your influence in the community. My Boyfriend and I went thru a similar situation. We live in a very small town on the Southern Oregon coast, and when he had a heart attack, he had to be airlifted to a larger city. I couldn’t go with him,as I don’t drive. He had a 5-way bypass.We used to vacation in AC for 2 months every year. We don’t feel good about returning again, It would be too risky. Thanx for your “heads up”, I’m sure you will turn your experience into a positive Best wishes to Jeff.

  8. Paul Biles

    First, to Jeff, all the best. I went through a similar experience when I was 51 (17 years ago). Rapid response saved me, and I’m healthier now that ever in my life. My wife and I are trading in our Colorado Rocky Mountain ski days for Ambergris Caye living this spring.

    Availability to health care is at the top of my concerns. Rebecca thank you so much for sharing your experience. I look forward to hearing more on the topic from you, as I look forward to following all of your Scoops.

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