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Cuban doctors in Haiti: `The worst tragedy is not being able to do more'

January 18, 2010 -- Since 1998, Cuba's health cooperation with Haiti has made it possible for 6000 doctors, paramedics and health technicians to work there. Besides, 450 young Haitians have graduated as doctors from Cuban colleges, free of charge, in the past 12 years. More than 400 Cuban specialists, 344 of them doctors and paramedics, have been in Haiti, jointly sponsored by the United Nations and the Cuban government. But in the wake of last Tuesday's disaster, the largest earthquake ever to hit the Caribbean Basin, Cuba dispatched another team of 60 doctors, health technicians and medications to join the doctors on the ground in Haiti. Cuba has also sent ten tons of medications.

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By Leticia Martínez Hernández, photos by Juvenal Balán

Port-au-Prince, Haiti — January 18, 2010 — Granma — The little boy, with a drip attached to his hand — although at that stage it wasn’t helping him very much — couldn’t stop trembling. The fluid that perhaps in other circumstances would give him some strength was not passing through his collapsed veins. Lying on a piece of cardboard, his life was ebbing away, while, at his feet, a Cuban doctor lamented not being able to do more.

"They brought this little angel in this morning. He was buried under the rubble for three days. A rescue team member brought him; he has no family and he’s unlikely to survive. We’ve given him everything, we’ve cleaned him up, we’ve treated his injuries, and I don’t know what else to do to help him. This tragedy has been merciless on the children, the pain is unbearable."

Cuban doctors are working continuously and amputations are the most frequent operations.

Aged 28, Sergio is already familiar with the face of death. These last few days have been terrible for this doctor from Santiago de Cuba, who has left his country for the first time to save lives. When asked what was the worst, he fired off two aspects from his heart: the suffering of little ones and not being able to help them all. That was what Sergio Otero González said, while a woman with bruised face clung to his hand.

It is time to move away from the little boy and attend to people arriving. When he comes back, maybe this nameless innocent will have stopped breathing, and he will have to accept having done everything possible to restore life to a child born marked by tragedy.

An unbearable stench emerges from the rubble, as people wander the streets.

Today, Haiti is replete with these sad stories. Hospital centres like Delma 33 (ironically called La Paiz) and La Renaissance have many horrors to recount, but the Cuban doctors there are intent on writing large the word LIFE, while Western news agencies are minimising that effort or even refuting it, like the US Fox News TV channel. Are we going to have to put speakers on the moon so that people know that Haiti has known Cuban doctors for many years before the earthquake struck?

Renaissance in Haiti

Paradoxes have taken hold of Haiti; with every glance I discover a contrast, another one... I’d thought that the contradiction between the happy faces looking out from advertisement boards and the crumpled faces of those passing below them was the greatest irony, but I was wrong. Finding the words "Peace" and "Renaissance" on the façades of the most dismal hospitals that I have seen in my life, exceeded any incongruence… So I decided to find the answer in the fluttering of my country’s flag over their doorways.

Injured people are constantly arriving. It is heartrending to see the large numbers of children.

It would seem that the Haitians are coming to the hospitals where the Cubans are working to find peace. They arrive in an endless stream; everyone wants to be seen immediately, the intolerable pain of their bodies is mixed with a rooted lack of affection, which seems to be instantly cured when one of our doctors gently caresses them. Entire families are moving into the hospital grounds. They have set up their shelters, placed the sick person in the middle, piled up the few possessions left to them and the family, when there still is one, leaves to seek help. Others transport their injured on pieces of hardboard, boards, mattresses… until they virtually corner a doctor.

There, among the many, I found the Dr Madelaine in La Rennaissance hospital centre. Reaching her was a balancing act. One foot first, then the other… stop to recover my balance: beneath me various Haitians writhing in agony, just to have touched them would have been unpardonable. However, the odyssey didn’t end there. Now I had to convince her to recount her experiences. This 32-year-old woman from Granma province is an expert in her work, but shakes when faced with a cassette recorder.

"This cannot be compared to anything that I have ever seen. When I arrived, I was frightened but had no time to allow that fear to grow. I still haven’t forgotten the face of a little two-year-old who they pulled out of the rubble and who arrived in agony. They are bringing lots of people here, but when it’s a child, your heart is wrung even more."

Don’t you despair when you’re being called from all sides and at all times to help people?

"They are desperate, what they have experienced is unthinkable. But we’ve learned to stay calm and treat them with delicacy even though we’re stressed. If you despair you’re not helping anyone and wind up being useless."

Surgeon Abrahana del Pilar Cisneros Depestre emerges from the improvised operating room with a similar equanimity. From inside, covered by sheets, a terrifying sound can be heard. "We’re amputating a leg", she says and invites me in. But my strength doesn’t stretch that far, so I decide to wait for her outside to talk. The only thing that I know about her is that she ended her vacation early to return to Haiti and help.

"Everything is so sad and desolate. The injuries are extremely grave. The most frequent are traumatalogies; many people come in virtually self-amputated, with their limbs almost torn off, with burns incompatible with life, like those of that girl who is looking after a neighbour right now because her mum died and no other family member has been found."

With the passing of days, the possibilities of salvation are minimal for those recently found, says this doctor, who has already lost count of the people who have passed through her hands. "On Friday (January 15) we operated on 15 people; today, Saturday, we’re on our 17th and the day’s not over, there’s one after the other. The severity of injuries is greater, the cases are extremely septic."

And the family members, doctor, what are they saying to you?

"Many people come in alone, but when their families bring them, the pain and sadness is so much that they just look at us, I think that they say it all with that, there’s no need for the word thanks."

Are you tired?

"It’s a fact that we’ve worked really hard, that the days have all merged into one another, but the desire to help is so great that we’re not allowing ourselves to feel tired; on the contrary, maybe we could manage to do more."

One might suspect that so much energy and desire to act are only happening here in La Renaissance. However, at the other extreme of the city, history is repeating itself.

Peace in Delma 33?

In La Paiz University Hospital, known as Delma 33, other doctors confirm the words of Abrahana, Sergio and Madelaine. Another Cuba flag is waving there, and gives entry to an even more shocking scenario. Almost all the injured are to be found outside the hospital. The groans touch one’s heart, the tremendous wounds make you turn your face away, the desolation is pitiful, the looks seeking compassion pierce you to the bone. Everything would seem to ask: will such misfortune ever end?

The aftershock of the night before made them flee in terror, a juncture "utilised" by the doctors to better organise the place and assess the strength of the building.

When we arrived, the Cuban doctors were equipping new spaces, posting signs delimiting areas, disinfecting the floors, classifying the sick and admitting the gravest cases. It was surprising to see so many people helping. Chilean, Cuban, Spanish, Canadian and Mexican specialists were working shoulder to shoulder. They were all speaking one language: that of salvation. They all repeated the same phrase: teamwork.

Cuban Dr. Carlos Guillén, director of the hospital, defined it in this way: "It’s been perfect cooperation; they come to us, seek us out spontaneously for making any decision; we have a meeting in the morning and another in the afternoon with the representatives of each nation, where we define what we are needing, what the priorities are and we are sharing everything."

What most concerned Heriberto Pérez, a Chilean doctor, was the initial disorder, and for that reason, he defends that cohesion among everyone, no matter where they come from, because what really matters is saving lives.

Rescue work continues although possibilities of survival are diminishing.

Rosalía, a nun, was caressing a little girl whose leg was in danger due to gangrene. She came from Spain to join the tremendous team, which also includes the Haitian resident Asmyrrehe Dollin. For this doctor, who graduated in Cuba, helping his compatriots is the greatest thing that life has bestowed on him. So he is grateful to the island for having given him the possibility to do so. Working together with the doctors who at one point were his professors, is an immense pride for him.

It is only this closeness among the doctors that will alleviate Haiti’s pain. The injured will be back at dusk, but maybe tomorrow the groaning will be less. It will be a blessing when the placards saying, "We need help", placed everywhere like shadows, begin to disappear.

Cuba and Venezuela to reopen health centres in Haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- January 18, 2010 -- acn The Center for Comprehensive Diagnosis George Gauvin, in Grand Goave town, will be reopened by Cuban doctors to provide first aid to earthquake victims from the surrounding areas of the Western Department of the Haitian capital.

This is one of the five CCDs completed in Haiti with the joint effort of Cuba and Venezuela out of 10 projected as part of a collaboration program. CCD director Dr Eisy Infante said the earthquake took eight Cuban experts by surprise inside the facility. None of them suffered any injuries. The left wing of the building was damaged.

Immediately after the 7.0 earthquake, people with different health conditions, with minor and serious lesions, or broken bones started to reach the hospital looking for help. The patients were assisted on the backyard of the clinic, under a few tents set up for the emergency. Five days later, the Cuban doctors have treated under extraordinary conditions more than 460 patients, including three childbirths.

Those with more serious conditions and requiring amputation have been transferred to hospitals downtown.

The CCD will be reopened soon, while experts at the center are preparing to lead efforts to educate the people to avoid epidemics as they have concentrated in places where they can protect themselves from the constant aftershocks of the earthquake.


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