How an ambulance abandoned me but city folk didn’t rob me

Sometimes it is really easy to complain about whatever is new or whatever city you are living in at the moment.  Sometimes I think I dislike Santiago because of how “city” it is.  I believe I feel the same way about New York. Conversely, I do not feel that way about Barcelona or Paris even though they are just as much “city”.

I like my air clean.  I like life slower.  I like short commutes.  And time for family.  I like nice people.

Most of the time, I think of outside-of-Santiago as the real Chile.  The place where people are kind and interested in their neighbors.  A place where children still learn to cueca and with luck ride horses.

But, Santiago can surprise me.

I need to remember that.

In 2000, I was an exchange student in Santiago (Yes, I realize that this is dating me for many of my fellow bloggers).  The first semester I lived with friends in Torres San Borja (those ugly towers around Casa Central de la Catolica just off Alameda, Diagonal Paraguay and other known streets.  I had talked my program, CIEE, into letting me live with friends and not a host family because I already had a host family– my host family from high school. Only, they weren’t my host family any more, they were just my family.  S, my now fiance, went to help me convince CIEE of this.

I live in this three bedroom apartment with my friend from high school and roommate K-RO, Marcela (another friend from high school), and Pancho (Marcela’s cousin).  We had little furniture.  Okay, we had two beds (K-RO’s and mine); the other two slept on mattresses.  Lucky for me, K-RO’s family adored me, and got me a bed.  We had a couple milk crates, two radios, and a kitchen.

Sometime around April, I got sick.  I was home in bed for four days.  You may have noticed that I did not mention TV.  I was tired and dizzy and reading was not doing it for me.  Finally, on the fifth day, boredom drove me from bed.  I wandered to the nearby Santa Lucia market. I liked to walk from my house to either the art fair or the hill.  That day I didn’t have the energy for the hill, so I went to the fair.

After wandering around for a bit, and deciding that the ring I liked was too expensive, I opted to have a second hole put in one ear.  This was something I had been thinking about and it was near my birthday.  (Also how I know it was sometime in April).  I paid and got a hole in my ear.  I continued to wander and a couple minutes later I passes out.  I was near the place I had gotten my ear pierced and looking at the ring.

Apparently, I fell straight backward– like a board.  When I came to, people had riffled through my coat pocket.  They had taken out my cell phone and my wallet.  They used my cell phone to call and ambulance and to call the “home phone” listed on my school ID.  That number was actually the CIEE office.  Our director was on her way. They stole nothing- not even the 20,000 Chilean pesos cash in my wallet.

I was cold and shivering.  The people who worked at the stalls put a folded-up cardboard box under me.  A woman who sold wool sweaters and blankets covered me in at least 4 garments. She actually put things she sold for her livelihood on the ground to help a girl she had never spoken to.

When the ambulance arrived, before the director, the conversation went something like this (all italics were in Spanish):

Ambulance person: We are going to bring you to the municipal hospital.

Me: I don’t want to go there.

A: You are ill and hurt. You need to go to the municipal hospital.

Me: No, take me to the Catholic hospital (for those who don’t know this was 3 blocks away and much better quality).


Me: Look you ASS, I speak Spanish. I am speaking Spanish. Bleeding from my head does not make me dumb.  The Catholic hospital is RIGHT THERE.

A: No, we don’t go to that one.

Me: My insurance is only accepted at the Catholic Hospital.

A: I am sorry. We are full.

And then they left. Literally. With me still on the ground, head bleeding, the ambulance with its driver and EMTs left.

Skye, the director, arrived soon after this and everyone told her the story.  They dumped rubbing alcohol on my head to slow the bleeding and gave me a clean towel to hold on my head.  I tried to stand but was wobbly.  Two men carried me to a cab.  Skye got in the cab and we went the wrong way down a one-way street to the hospital.

That night, head stitched, Skye took me in another cab to my grandma’s house in Estacion Central.  I was told to stay in bed for three days and not wash my hair; it was gross.

For the three days, each time I had to go to the bathroom, my grandma, her nana (who was about a million years old and shaped like a right angle due to a hunched back), my aunt, and my cousin would dutifully follow me.  They would stand outside as I tried to use the facilities, very conscious of the fact that they were all standing outside and listening.  My Aunt Patty stayed in the bed with me and woke each time I breathed too loud.  They made me chicken soup and brought me manjar treats. After three days I was allowed to leave, but only to go to Rancagua to be with my parents.

On the bad days, I remind myself why I love this country.  When you need it, strangers can be kind. Even if I don’t need it, my family will always be there for me.


Top Left: Me and grandma

Top Right: My parents and K-RO

Bottom Left: Me and Aunt Patty

Bottom Right: Me and my cousin Constanza (she was born 4 months after I arrived in the house)



  1. that is very good to know about the santa lucia feria and the nice people who helped you but your ambulance story confirmed my fears about where they will and won’t take you. i also just found out that at the municipal hospitals, there are no specific requirements for specialists so any doctor can call themselves a plastic surgeon or a heart surgeon–scary!

    Oh and your family seems lovely!

  2. Clare that’s such a great story (well besides the cut in your head…). I find myself calling my host family “my family” too…in fact, I think it’s time to drop the “host!”

    Anyway, I also wanted to comment on the ambulance situation. A couple of weeks ago a German guy who was staying in my family’s apartment got really sick. I will spare the details, but he had been sick for over eight hours by the time his girlfriend came and told me (they didn’t speak Spanish), he was severely dehydrated. Luckily my sister is a doctor so she was able to look at him, but she said there was nothing she could do and said he needed to go to the emergency room. For various reasons (as you can imagine) we thought it would be best for him to go in an ambulance to La Catolica (which is also the closest hospital to us). We called various ambulances (private ones) and they refused to go to La Catolica! Finally, my sister, who works at La Catolica, called her boss (at 4:00am) and got special authorization for an ambulance to come. This was about 45 minutes later! If it had been a dire emergency, 45 minutes would not have been okay. At the end, we ended up taking him in a car anyway because they were going to charge $100.000 pesos to take him in the ambulance for about 7 minutes. I guess the ambulance problem is just one facet of the many problems with the health care here in Chile….

  3. I’m glad people helped you because I’ve had two major situations where not one person batted an eye at me as I was being assaulted, and once when a rabied dog was biting my leg, wouldn’t let go and I was screaming, crying, and asking people for help (in English because I was hysterical and hadn’t learned spanish yet, it was towards the beginning of my study abroad time here when I was 13). Not one person stopped.

    Abby in the U.S. ambulances are much faster than that, but a ride in one can cost you upwards of 10k. Crazy!

  4. The municipal hospitals scare me too. I wouldn’t go there. That said, i am not snobbish about my clinics that I go to. My GYN is at Hospital de Chile… it is ugly and dank, but he is a great doctor and is cheap.

    What is up about not taking ambulances to Catolica? I used to live by there and we heard ambulances going in and out all the time!

    Kyle, you are totally right that in the US ambulances are unbelievably expensive. Also, I am sorry to hear about your experiences. I think it was helpful that I woke up still speaking in Spanish.

  5. Thanks for sharing this story Clare. I like reading positive stories of Santiago. I really like it here for now and hope this will not change soon.

    Your story reminds me that I have to quickly get medical insurance.

  6. Holy crap. I never knew ambulances were so expensive in the US!! I mean I figured they were more than here, but not that much. Jeeeeez.

    Oh, and my host sister told me the reason the private ambulances didn’t want to bring him was because he didn’t have Chilean ISAPRE. But I feel like that shouldn’t matter. You should get health care first, and then worry about payment. But I guess in real life it doesn’t work out like that.

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