Practicing medicine in a faraway place

Photo by Jane McKee Dr. Gabriel Idrovo in his medical office in the Galapagos Islands

He loves scuba diving and life in the Galapagos

Dr. Gabriel Idrovo, 51, runs a private medical practice on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. He treats patients for all kinds of illnesses and he operates a decompression chamber for divers who stay underwater for too long or come up too quickly.

He first came to the Galapagos when he was 25, fresh out of medical school in Ecuador and enthusiastic about scuba diving. He worked for a month as a doctor on a 100-passenger cruise ship as a replacement for a friend who wanted a vacation break. The friend decided not to return and Dr. Idrovo stayed on for a year.

He says he fell in love with the Galapagos. He worked as a Galapagos National Park guide and as a scuba instructor for a while. Then he got the idea to go to France for further medical training. He was in France for eight years.

In 2001, he returned to the Galapagos, married, with two children, to work as the medical director at a decompression chamber. Five years later he opened the medical practice that he is now operating on Santa Cruz, one of about a dozen islands in the Galapagos archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles from the mainland. About 30,000 people live on four of the islands. About 20,000 people live on Santa Cruz,  12,000 of them in the main town, Puerto Ayora, where Dr. Idrovo has his office.

Upon entering his office, you can find Dr. Idrovo sitting in green scrubs, with a book in his hand, ready to provide service to his next patient. Dr. Idrovo has taken care of all kinds of patients, from a severely burned victim to a diver who suffered from reduced oxygen. He took care of me during one of my visits to his office, diagnosing me with an ear infection and providing me with an antibiotic treatment. When I left his office, he gave me with his cell phone number and told me to call if I needed anything.  I was in the Galapagos on a study abroad program of the University of Miami.

Dr. Idrovo was once one of a handful of doctors in the Galapagos Islands.

Now, he said, there are 23 doctors at just the hospital in Puerto Ayora, Hospital Republica del Ecuador. San Cristobal Island, the political capital of the islands, has a hospital called the Oskar Jandi Hospital. There is a clinic on the island of Isabella.  Some of the doctors in the Galapagos are recent graduates of medical school in Ecuador and are doing a year of government service.

The hospital on San Cristobal got its own Bell-430 helicopter in August 2012. In its first 17 months of operation it flew 48 missions – including five rescues at sea and five flights in which medical teams were flown to deal with emergencies.

All the islands lack clean drinking water and sanitation is poor. The most common reasons for hospital visits are respiratory and diarrheal infections. Obesity and diabetes are chronic problems.

Some people in the Galapagos rarely see doctors. There are half a dozen or so pharmacies in Puerto Ayora and several on San Cristobal. They sell prescription medicines without prescriptions and offer advice on how to deal with medical problems.

Dr. Idrovo said there is little preventive medicine being practiced in the Galapagos. He also said that many people on the islands have diets that are heavy on carbohydrates.

Mira Shah

Dr. Idrovo came to the islands, he said, hoping to significantly change health care in the area. He’s seen improvement, he said. However, progress has been slow. He can only reach so many people and sometimes his message doesn’t get through. “I explain in detail why someone should take care of a condition that they have,” he said. “It is hard for them to understand why I feel this way.”

Many of Dr. Idrovo’s clients are people from other countries, some living in the islands, others visiting. For an office visit, he charges residents $30. For tourists, the price is $50. He said he treats half a dozen sport divers a year in the decompression chamber.

One of his regular patients, Diana Garcia, works in the Maccaron Scuba Diver shop on Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street in Puerto Ayora. She said she gets fast, personalized attention from Dr. Idrovo. She recently gave birth to a daughter and she said Dr. Idrovo takes care of the child, too.

Dr. Idrovo said he would like to expand his practice by hiring other doctors. But he said the cost of living is relatively high in the Galapagos and that so far doctors have been asking for a higher salary than he can pay.

At one point, Dr. Idrovo thought he might want to be an engineer or an architect. When it came time for him to build an office in the Galapagos, he designed it himself: a two-story white-washed building with an apartment for him and his family.

The office where he sees patients has big windows and is painted in shades of white. He works at a smoothly finished cedar desk. A spiral staircase leads up to the library in his apartment. Diving boats bob in the harbor and he can go diving anytime he wants in one of the most exotic places in the world. “It’s fantastic for me here,” he said. “I can do everything.” #


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7 responses to “Practicing medicine in a faraway place”

  1. Gabriella says:

    Really enjoyed the article! Very informative and useful should I return to the Galapagos and fall ill. So good to know there are experienced, caring doctors.

  2. Logan A. says:

    This is a great article. It’s so interesting to see the differences in medicine around the world. Must have been a great experience!

  3. Kristen says:

    This article was really interesting! I like how it provided a realistic view of what the healthcare is actually like in the Galapagos. If I ever et the chance to visit in the future I’ll take in knowing that there is great and accessible hair are available

  4. Lizzie says:

    What great insight on what seemed to be a significantly positive experience!

  5. Savannah says:

    Dr.Idrovo seems to have his heart in the right place. Health care is so important and we so often take it for granted. How nice it is though to be working in the Galapagos!

  6. Maggie says:

    This article provided loads of insight about a medical system that many don’t get to be a part of. I really enjoyed reading it and would love to hear more about your experience!

  7. Ashley says:

    This article is really informative, and I enjoyed getting to know more about Dr. Idrovo. Definitely made the Galapagos a place it want to see to witness this mans medical history.