Woman Recovers From Spine Injury After Car Crash In Rural Mexico

PIH Helps Patients Access Advanced Surgical Care

Posted on Jan 18, 2022

Isabelina López was able to access advanced surgical care through support from Compañeros En Salud.
Isabelina López was able to access advanced surgical care through support from Compañeros En Salud. Photo by Paola Rodriguez / PIH.

For Isabelina López, it was a car crash that changed everything.

“When I woke up, I was in the middle of the road,” López says. “But I couldn’t move.”

López, 30, lives in Barrio Lagunita, a rural community in Chiapas, Mexico. On the day of the accident, in February 2021, she was traveling between communities in a pick-up truck used as public transportation when the truck came to a dangerous bend in the road and overturned, ejecting her from the vehicle at a very high speed and hurtling her as far as 35 feet.

López woke up half an hour later in the middle of the road, in extreme pain. She didn’t completely understand what had just happened. She just wanted the pain to stop.

The nearest clinic was an hour away. And the nearest hospital, close to four hours away.

When her family found out about the accident, from her husband—who was also a passenger in the truck, but uninjured—they immediately took her to the rural clinic of Capitán Luis Á. Vidal, staffed by Compañeros En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Mexico. There, a first-year clinician—one of 10 pasantes hired by Compañeros En Salud each year—examined López and delivered the news: she had a spinal fracture.

Roadblocks and dead ends

That set in motion a 3.5-hour journey to the community hospital in Jaltenango de la Paz, which Compañeros En Salud has supported for more than a decade with staff, resources, and funding.

At the hospital, X-rays showed that López could have a spinal cord injury. If that was the case, doctors told her, she would never be able to walk again.

But more tests would be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Doctors recommended that López travel to the Hospital of High Specialties Ciudad Salud in Tapachula, Chiapas—immediately.

The journey would normally take eight hours on unstable, dangerous roads. But López didn’t have eight hours. The pain was becoming too much for her to handle.

Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Compañeros En Salud was there to support her through the Right to Health Care program, which has assisted 1,787 patients in accessing specialized care at advanced hospitals, including those out-of-state, since 2013. The program provides free transportation, housing, and food and connects patients with a social worker to accompany them through the process.

Last year, the program served 481 new patients—including López.

Through the program, Compañeros En Salud worked with the hospital to send López to Tapachula by helicopter—reducing the travel time to just 1.5 hours and helping her get the urgent care she needed.

More good news followed. At Ciudad Salud, tests and evaluations revealed López did not have a spinal cord injury. Still, she would need a surgery that required important surgical materials that were difficult to find and would cost as much as $30,000 USD.

For López and her family—coffee farmers who earn roughly $3,000 USD per year—that care seemed impossible.

“I felt so sad,” López says. “I was away from my family, my kids. I didn’t know how [much] longer I’d be at the hospital. We didn’t have money for such an expensive surgery.”

Without the operation, López would be bed-ridden for the rest of her life.

Isabelina López sits with her family at their home.
Isabelina López sits with her family at their home. Photo by Paola Rodriguez / PIH.

Short and steady steps

Luckily, Compañeros En Salud took action, fast—the Right to Health Care program launched a nationwide search for suppliers of the surgical materials and ultimately bought them from private companies, since neither public hospitals nor the Ministry of Health had them on hand. The program then coordinated the complex logistics of delivering the materials to the hospital where the surgery would take place.

After two months in bed, López finally had her surgery.

Now, she is recovering at home. While she can’t stand on her feet for too long, she’s able to take short walks using a cane.

“I want to be okay, so that I can cook for my children again,” she says.

The back pain remains intense. But López takes medication that helps and regularly checks in with Compañeros En Salud during the clinical team’s bimonthly visits to her community. For distraction, she has taken up embroidery—stitch by stitch, focusing on what she can control.

“I was devastated when I thought there was no solution, but Compañeros En Salud helped me,” she says, from her sunlit home in Barrio Lagunita. “Now, I can walk again.”

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