I had to go to a health center on my ninth day in Havana. The skin on my chest had started to turn colors and peel, and it was clearly not a sunburn. I thought that I had become that American- having a reaction to the water, the food, the foreign landscape ninety miles South of my home country. After one look at my peeling chest, my experienced roommate informed me that it was nothing other than a fungal infection- that I could have gotten it anywhere, but it needed to be treated.
It was 2007 and the Cubans wasted no time in getting my skin the attention that it needed. Almost before I realized that there was something wrong, every Cuban that I'd met over the last nine days was hovering over me-offering me water, coffee, guava, rum--anything to make me feel better. And their little gifts, these regalitos did make me feel better--until they escorted me down to the van that was supposed to take me to the clinic.
It's no secret that Cuba is the Jurassic Park of automobiles, a living museum of antiquated, bright and colorful cars. But when you're depending on a van that looks like its better days were in the early 1960s to get you to the doctor, not even Havana's finest club rum can act as an elixir to your doubt.
Nevertheless, the ever chivalrous Cuban opened the van's creaking door for me, and I climbed into the backseat. Within minutes, I was on my way to a Cuban medical center in a vehicle that needed a hospice of its own.
We drove on choppy and uneven roads that seemed to have no end, paved cuts down the middle of open green land and the intermittent Cuban flag blowing in the wind. I held my breath every time the Jurassic van dipped into one of the mighty holes in the road, or attempted a pause at the herds of goats crossing over to the other side. The van's engine growled after every bump and it occurred to me that it was probably not the original engine. Cubans are known to recycle car parts-all of their vehicles are hybrids of the decades, sure it might be a Chevy on the outside, but on the inside its a Buick, its a Ford, its a Mercedes.
It's a mesclado, as the Cubans say, a mix.
The two Cubans in the front seat of the van were not phased by the growling, by the bumps, by the crossing goats. The chauffeur, who we called, chofer, was humming along to Phil Collins on the radio, and the front seat passenger, Cuba's very own JFK Jr., was reading el Granma, the Cuban newspaper. Every so often, JFK Jr. would turn around and lift his Adidas sunglasses up his forehead and ask me if I was all right. When I assured him that I was, he'd remind me to let him know if I needed anything. Then another goat would cross the road and he'd be back between the pages of Cuba's only periodical.
The medical center was forty-five minutes outside of Havana. When we arrived, Chofer parked the van along the curb, and JFK Jr. hopped out to open the door for me. He escorted me to the front desk and introduced me to the assistant behind the counter. I was scared because my Spanish was not quick enough for Cuban Spanish, and how would I explain what was going on with my body, mi cuerpo, without language?
JFK Jr. translated for me.
And there must have been ten pages of questions. I recently watched a TED talk on Cuba, given by Gail Reed, a journalist who spent a lot of time reporting and writing about health care in Cuba. In her talk, she notes that the patient interviews extract enough information from the patient that Cuban doctors are often spared the use of costly technology to detect symptoms. I can attest that this is true: JFK Jr. and I were doing paperwork for about thirty minutes.
There were two examination rooms in the health center, and neither were ornamented or adorned the way they are in the United States. There were no diplomas or certificates on the walls, and there were no cabinets with Q-tips, cottonballs, tissue. The primary care physician however looked the same in his long white robe and gloves, the quintessential stethoscope looped around his neck. The only difference I perceived, and perhaps it was due to my then limited experience in hospitals and primary care offices, but this Cuban doctor was ever so thorough. His every movement was slow and controlled, he did not work in haste. At one point, I thought I caught him sketching the pattern of the rash on my chest in his notes but I could not be sure and there was a language barrier between us so, I didn't ask him.
But I wouldn't put it past a Cuban doctor to illustrate the details on a piece of paper. Cuban doctors are arguably the best trained doctors in the world.
Last Thursday, Cuba sent 165 health professionals to Sierra Leone in response to the Ebola virus. This is the largest team sent by any foreign nation, according to the World Health Organization, and it is not the first time that Cuban doctors have come between countries and their crises.
The most widely known example is following Hurricane Katrina when Castro rounded 1500 doctors and offered to send them to New Orleans to provide care and supplies. He received no response from the American government, though that lack of response was not entirely out of character. Following Hurricane Dennis that same year, the United States offered to help Cuba stabilize after being hit but Cuba refused American help.
Refusing each other's help-- our two countries- can they not see the faces of their people?
I was frightened on that ninth day in Cuba. I was frightened because my body needed care and I was in a country that looked like it was crumbling. There's a saying goes, says that you can't take care of anyone until you learn to take care of yourself, and on that day I wondered, could Cuba take care of me?
The answer was absolutely, yes. And to this day, I will trust a Cuban doctor over any other doctor, because Cubans take care--
the Cubans took care of me.