Shortly after her 1-year-old son, David, was born, 19-year-old Katherine Barrera started to notice that her baby’s head was growing more on one side than the other.
“If I hadn’t taken my son out of here,” Barrera said. “My son could have convulsed and died.”
On Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos archipielago, healthcare services are provided at the Subcentro de Salud 3, a small public medical center located in the town square just steps from the ocean shore.
Currently, the medical center, which was first opened as a health post in the 1960s, has 9 doctors, 4 of which are rural doctors, and a small number of nurses and assistants. Each day, the staff sees an average of 30 to 50 patients a day, according to Nurse Mayra Perez’s estimates.
The center does not have the equipment or medical specialists necessary to treat anything other than simple illnesses, such as coughs and fevers. As a result, Isabela residents with more complicated healthcare needs—including childbirth—are forced to travel to the hospitals in Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, or the mainland.
Dr. Miguel Guevara, a Guayaquil native who heads the Ministry of Health’s program for patients who are elderly or have disabilities on Isabela, said about 5 of the patients who visit the medical center each month are transferred or referred to other healthcare providers outside Isabela.
According to the non-profit organization Galapagos ICE, travelling to the mainland for health services costs an average of $1131 USD per year, a considerable financial burden considering half of Galapagos residents earn less than $400 USD a month. For people like Barrera, who must travel to the mainland every 2 to 3 months to have her son checked out, these costs can add up.
“Historically, the people of Isabela have been abandoned by the healthcare system,” said Guevara.
The 32-year-old was assigned to Isabela’s medical center six months ago as part of the Ecuadorian government’s rural doctor program, which requires all Ecuadorian medical students to work in an underserved clinic or hospital for a year upon completion of their medical studies. Each year, the medical center receives a number of rural doctors, who are forced to treat patients with little resources.
“There comes a point where you get a little frustrated because you have a patient who needs a certain test, and it isn't available,” Guevara said.