Health challenges in Bahía Málaga

Before leaving for Colombia, I reassured my family with the fact that there is a naval base within sight (about a 30 minute boat ride) from the community where I would be staying. And if anything were to happen to me I would be a phone call and an airlift away from the best health care the Colombian navy could offer.

Today, I got a first-hand reality check on how naive I had been and how truly difficult healthcare is in the four communities of the Community Council of Bahía Málaga:

After lunch, a boat arrived at full speed. My first thought was that my fellow students were retuning from a trip to scout out a land-based route to the Sierpe waterfall, which is only accessible by boat during high tide (marea alta). When the whole community came running out of their homes, it became clear that something was wrong.

Men, women, children, and even dogs crowded the dock to find out what had happened. A man had been hit by the branch of a tree as it fell, splitting his head open. The boat he had arrived in was old and the motor didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the naval base.

Fifteen minutes and quite a bit of drama passed before the group decided not to transfer the wounded man to another boat. Instead, they filled the engine of the existing boat with gas and sped as fast as the crippled craft could take them toward the naval base. My mind returned to a lesson that my Global Health Systems Professor, Dr. Singh, had taught about how time was a critical consideration in the creation of responsive emergency health systems. There are no community health posts in the Community Council of Bahía Málaga and La Plata, the community in which I reside, is the only community with a “promotora de salud” – Colombia’s version of a Community Health Worker. And the disorder at the dock made it clear that there was no emergency response protocol.

As the boat sped away and I felt a sense of relief. Maybe they could make it to the naval base in time to save that poor man’s life. My heart sunk when, fifteen minutes later, the boat returned with one person bailing out water. The pin that holds the propellor on had broken. The community again gathered around the doc and a man from the community who had already the mad the sprint down the beach with a motor once before – during the cacophony of the boat’s first arrival – made the trip a second time, mounting the motor on a newer boat. Fifteen more minutes passed before they were off again, en route to the naval base in the hopes that they weren’t too late to save the man’s life.

Update: the man made it to the base, was attended, and is in stable condition.


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