Words I Never Thought I Needed in Spanish (But I Did): Pap Smear

So this one time… in Costa Rica…

I have so many language learning memories from three years living in Costa Rica, and while I love telling them, there’s probably only a handful that are blog-worthy.

This is one of those. Totally blog-worthy.

Except I do blush a little still when I tell it.

So here goes… the one time in Costa Rica when I learned how to say pap smear in Spanish.

El papanicolau, to be exact.

Before we get to the good part, I have some explaining to do about the weather and the medical system.

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On a jungle hike during my time in Costa Rica. So. Green.

The weather in Costa Rica is rainy about 9 months and sunny about 3 months, give or take. During those 9 rainy months, the extra dose of humidity combined with city pollution did a number on my immune system, particularly my respiratory system. Any inkling of a cold I would have, for whatever reason, turned quickly into bronchitis.

It was like I could predict the bronchitis was going to set in… A head cold for about 5 days… then a couple days when I was feeling better… Then the cold back with a vengeance weighing on my lungs with a deep cough.

The medical system is termed socialist, as everyone pays a tax to La Caja and then receives services for free. (We all know free is relative, right?) So for a doctor’s appointment, I would have to go stand in a long line at a neighborhood clinic to receive a number. Then after getting my number, we would line up in that order to schedule a time when we could come back later that day.

Did I mention this line started forming before the sun rose in the mañana? If I knew I needed to see a doctor, I had to be out of bed by about 5am to make it to these lines in time for that “lucky number”.

I would come back to the clinic at my scheduled time and wait again to see the doctor. A nurse would call me back, take my vitals, and then I would wait again.

Now that you have all that background información, we’re ready for the good part!

So this one time, I KNEW I had bronchitis. I had had it so often that I knew I needed a particular antibiotic. After the long lines and the waiting, I was finally in that appointment room waiting.

Una doctora came in and was quick to listen to my lungs and check my ears and throat. Nodding, she took some notes, and I’m anticipating her diagnosis of what I already knew.

Then she says, “Ha tenido un papanicolaou este año?”

Excuse me? What is that?! And I’m here for my lungs?

I really didn’t understand what she was asking me, which immediately brought up my heart rate and my body broke out in sweat. After some deliberation back and forth, I figured out she was asking about a PAP SMEAR.

Estoy aquí para mis pulmones,” I insisted. (I am here for my lungs!)

And again in her rapid-fire Spanish, she insisted I have a papanicolaou…

I didn’t see any way out of this, so I accepted the free papanicolaou (which they never called to follow up on… so I guess it was normal?). After all that awkwardness was over, she agreed that I had bronquitis and needed an antibiótico.

I can’t get over the fact that I went in for a cold and was given a pap smear… maybe they had a quota to meet that month?

And years later, as a state-side OB-GYN asked me if I’d had a pap smear recently, you know how the story started.

“Well, this one time… in Costa Rica…”

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