My Mom’s Experiences at Havana’s “Roach Motel” Hospital

Irina Echarry

A room at the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — She was sweating buckets. An intense burning sensation in her chest was making her dizzy. She started to go cold and pale, and her lips took on that frightening purple tonality. Then, she passed out.

Despite this, when we got to the nearest polyclinic, the doctor on duty didn’t sound her with a stethoscope. We described the symptoms my mother had just shown. The doctor saw that she had walked into the clinic looking a little pale, so she said they first had to rule out a hypoglycemic episode and then anemia. In response to my demands and restlessness, she would continue chewing her gum and say: “Easy, love, easy. I know what I have to do.”

I felt bound hand and foot. Was I to yell, take my mother somewhere else, even if it were farther away? It was not the first time I’d had a delicate situation with the doctors at “my” polyclinic.

Finally, when she was good and ready, she gave my mother an electrocardiogram and fitted her with an oxygen mask. Immediately, my mother’s face regained its color. More than 40 minutes had already gone by and only a memory remained of the chest pain. The doctor found no reason to refer her to a hospital or to admit her to the polyclinic’s emergency ward. What’s more, it is impossible to catch anything that will take you out of Alamar at 3:00 in the morning.

We went home (and barely slept).

Morning found us at the cardiovascular hospital. There, employees smile, ask how you’re doing and are generally kind – from doctors, through nurses to janitors. I am of course referring to the emergency ward, where there are the material conditions needed for professionals and patients to feel comfortable.

There, she had more electrocardiograms and underwent all manner of (quick) tests. She was then taken to the observations ward.

At the waiting room, it felt strange to be in a hospital that didn’t feel oppressive. With the exception of a number of people who were worried about the seriousness of a relative’s condition, a sense of peace prevailed.

A few hours later, a professor of medicine confirmed that my mother ought to be admitted, particularly because of the syncope she had experienced the night before. But she had to be admitted at the hospital in our jurisdiction.

I couldn’t help but blurt out: “God, they’re going to admit my mother to the roach motel!”

Yes, we residents of Habana del Este must be admitted to the Calixto Garcia Clinical, Surgical and Teaching Hospital, popularly known as the “roach motel.”

A brief stay at this hospital’s emergency ward set the differences between the two health facilities in starker relief. The permanent presence of two police officers there reminded me that crime rates in Havana are not low.

Every so often, someone would burst into the ward yelling: “He’s bleeding to death, he’s bleeding to death, I need a stretcher!” First, we heard the screams of pain of a man with a dislocated tibia. Then came the heartrending cries of a young woman who learned of her mother’s death. Then, we saw a young man who had been struck on the head with a machete: he was being held up by the hands while he tried to articulate words that wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Blood everywhere, stretcher bearers that do not reply promptly to emergencies, loud-mouthed receptionists, collective hysteria. “Does my mother really need to be admitted here?” I thought.

The question was beginning to torment me when the doctor on duty came out to speak to relatives about emergency cases. The first feeling was relief: he believed there was nothing seriously wrong with my mother and that there was no reason to admit her. “We’re leaving!” I thought. Then I began to think that they were basing their diagnosis on how well she looked and downplaying the importance of what she experienced. The image of her deathly paleness came back to me.

“What if it happens again?” I thought.

Since she had arrived at the hospital referred from another hospital (the Cardiovascular Hospital), we had to wait for a specialist to examine her and confirm whether she was fit to go back home or not. Nearly two hours later, a cardiologist examined her and discovered some problems in the results of the electrocardiogram from the previous night.

So what happened? Exactly what you’re imagining: we had to stay in the “roach motel.”

It was painful watching the water pour out ceaselessly, what with the many families in Havana who suffer a shortage of water.

After decades of neglect, a slow, long-overdue restoration process is underway at the more than 100-year-old Calixto. The dilapidated halls are still there but, generally speaking, and in spite of the constructive mess it is in, the hospital is trying to put behind its reputation as a filthy, neglected place where cockroaches thrive unchecked, a reputation that has accompanied it for far too long. I can’t say it will manage to do so with any certainty. What I can say is that my mother received quality attention at the intensive and intermediate therapy ward.

Though located in Havana’s residential neighborhood of Vedado, the Calixto is a place frequented by humble patients, common folk who can’t afford medical services in hard currency and do not have friends in high places who can arrange these for them – hence the hustle-and-bustle of its emergency ward.

The hospital is not only known for its dilapidated state and its bugs. Its health professionals are also glorified by people.

The remodeling of the ward and purchase of new, quality equipment will likely make doctors, nurses and others at the coronary ward – in addition to highly knowledgeable and eager to continue learning – more affable and solicitous.

For an entire week, we saw them work, treat everyone equally and carry out their duties diligently despite the low wages they earn. It didn’t strike us as the kind of emotional blackmail that says: “I’m giving you a royal treatment so that you’ll pay me something later.”

In short, everyone was carrying out their duties and treating others well – the way things should always be but rarely are. They even held a meeting aimed at hearing the opinions patients and relatives had about the treatment they had receiving from doctors and their work in general.

I don’t know whether it was mere coincidence or if such meetings are held every so often, but, accustomed as people are to seeing their comments at meetings go nowhere, very few people expressed their opinions.

The coronary ward isn’t free from the shortcomings of the notorious hospital. Even though it was recently repaired, it has a number of deficiencies. As we all know, intensive care patients should not get out of bed, not even to urinate. However, there are no screens or room dividers in the ward so that patients can satisfy their physiological needs privately. I had to work miracles to scrub my mother’s body clean while keeping the man in the bed across from her from seeing her breasts.

I consider it dangerous that street venders come into the wards where patients in intermediate care are. Most of the time, they offer products that these patients should not eat.

The TV isn’t working. According to one of the doctors, patients and their relatives do not look after the ward and some even steal things like the remote control and bathroom fixtures. Since the television is propped up high on the wall, they started using a stick to press the on button…until they broke a hole through the TV. These practices may also explain why the shower in the ward my mother was in could never be shut off. It was painful watching the water pour out ceaselessly, what with the many families in Havana who suffer a shortage of water.

It is pointless to lay the blame on patients and their relatives and forget about the theft of resources by hospital employees – at this stage, all of that is secondary. If it continues to accumulate problems, the Calixto, despite its qualified professionals, will continue to be Havana’s “roach motel.”

22 thoughts on “My Mom’s Experiences at Havana’s “Roach Motel” Hospital

  • Unfortunately I have, had to take a young lady for a medical condition (asthma), but I was impressed that I was able to talk to a doctor, no lack of fixture there. I have very good private insurance and I only wave at my doctor in the hall if I ever see him…aah capitalism!

  • Look, no one is fully satisfied of living where he/she is. Since 2000 more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island (capitalist, with all the modernities etc.). By the way, the enslaved Africans sang as a way of affirming their own humanity. I know many Cubans who left, who are dying to return but now they sold their homes, will not have the same job they hand and would have to become cuentapropista. By the way, I am happy but I wish my life was different I am hoping to win the lottery and travel the world.

  • Nice. Doesn’t change reality. Post a picture or confirmation.

  • Bad analogy unless by abused you mean to say that the wife has for 55 years slammed her own head against the wall and justified it by saying that if she didn’t do it, her imperial husband would do worse to her.

  • Would you blame an abused wife for her bruises?

  • My cousin Roberto Lenzano was a surgeon in Santiago for 30 years!!

  • All food and medicine and some medical equipment are exempted from the embargo. However, those exempt items being sent to Cuba must be screened. I know of cases where, items have been confiscated for screening purposes and then subsequently released for transport. Old PCs would not qualify as medical equipment and would likely be prohibited. It is important to remind you that that is how an embargo works. As long as the US maintains this policy as a means to encourage democracy in Cuba, it is worth enforcing it to the fullest. Otherwise, why bother?

  • You sound a little like those people who use to say that because African-American slaves sang while they picked cotton in the field, they must be happy. I KNOW that my friend wishes his life were different. But from his perspective there is little hope for change. He returned from Venezuela because he loved his wife and child who remained in Cuba while he was on mission. Living abroad without them, even under much better conditions, was not an option for him. I agree with you regarding his patriotism. However, you can be a patriot and disagree with your government. Fidel Castro claims to be a patriot but he certainly disagreed with the Batista regime.

  • What flat panel TV in which hospital?
    On wards for tourists / Venezuelans or for Cubans?

  • Have you ever been in a Cuban hospital in Oriente? If not: please do and get back to us.

    They have guards that try to stop people from taking pictures.
    The US does not confiscate any medical equipment. Cuba buys only 1% of the approved trades.

  • MLK hospital is bad but it is the Taj Majal in comparison to Calixto Garcia in Vedado. There is an orthopedic hospital across the street from Calixto Garcia named Fructuoso Rodriguez. It is smaller and slighter better than its neighbor. The worst American hospital will still have all the light bulbs and fluorescent tubes it needs. The worst hospital in the US may have a clogged toilet but no one steals the fixtures. Have you seen a Cuban hospital?

  • I am sure he feel very patriotic and instead of defecting returned to help his people, I have met many like him…they live modestly but happy….

  • Ooops, I guess the flat panel TVs I saw there were a figment of my imagination? When was the last time you went there 1998?

  • Not correct. This is how a half truth is used by propagandists…

    I have friends in the medical health care system and the medical school, this is an exaggeration, US Customs confiscate many medical equipment (especially if high tech) and penalizes third countries if they send anything remotely related to the US. Pastors for Peace had old PC confiscated by US customs…they allowed the buses…

  • Sounds like Martin L. King hospital in Los Angeles, medical care is better if you have money, you are white….as many Cuban economic exiles are finding in Florida now that the Repub Gov did not accept help to expand Medicaid…….

  • It is the political and economic system which the Castros imposed on Cuba which has ruined the Cuban economy. The Castros destroyed the level playing field for the Cuban people.

    They destroyed Cuban agriculture through collectivization and insane schemes like the million tone harvest. They lived like parasites off of the massive Soviet subsidies for 30 years and failed to build a full functioning economy. They are now living off tourist cash, remittances and cheap Venezuelan oil.

    The reason the hospitals are understaffed is because the Cuban state has sent thousands of medical workers abroad to toil as underpaid indentured workers to keep more cash flowing into the regime coffers. The rights of the Cuban workers and the health of the Cuban people are nothing next to the need of the Cuban military dictatorship to stay in power.

  • Blame the regime. Trade sanctions do not prohibit the sale of food medicines and medical equipment.

    Nobody believes that a regime can build lots of nice new apartments in gated communities for the military could not repair hospitals. Health for Cubans is no priority.

    Lots of medical equipment is donated. and often doesn’t arrive where it should have gone. When Rick Schwag, a person working for an ONG helping Cubans with all kinds of materials (see links below) in 2006 found out a shipment of costly anesthesiology machines he was transporting to the island from doctors at Johns Hopkins University hadn’t arrived at their destination he set out to investigate and was promptly arrested and deported a couple of days later . Nobody has ever explained what happened to the equipment.

    In 2008 142 millions of dollars worth of sales of medical equipment and medicines were approved in the US for sale to Cuba. The regime only followed through on 1% of that. An expert from New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, which provides nonpartisan commercial and economic information about Cuba explained that this had nothing to do with the sanctions, but with decisions by the Cuban government not to buy them.

    In your own words: the regime hurts the Cubans. It is their #1 bully.

    Background on Rick Schwag experience and work:
    “Cuba gets some wheels, with help from Vt.”, August 20, 2005,
    By Bruce Edwards Rutland Herald,

    “Lyndonville man talks about being imprisoned in Cuba”, By Helen J. Simon, Free Press Staff Writer, June 11, 2006,

    “The U.S. says it approved $142 million in commercial and donated medical exports to the communist island in 2008. So why did less than 1 percent of it get there?”

    “It’s not the embargo,” said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser at the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, which provides nonpartisan commercial and economic information about Cuba. “These are economic and political decisions not to buy.” Cuba often waits for allies to donate what it needs, Kavulich said. “They’d rather get things for free than pay for them.”

    “It’s unclear why U.S. medical exports aren’t reaching Cuba”, Dallas Morning News, 5 December 2009.

  • Be glad you live in Havana. In Oriente, Santiago de Cuba for example, the situation is much worse. There the hospitals are even more decrepit and – what is worse – often have no working equipment. Lots of medical equipment has broken, down. A couple of years ago the whole town only had a few working echography machines for months. A TV on a word: pure luxury in Santiago. Never heard of it except in the hospital wards used for Venezuelans.

  • One of my best friends in Cuba is Chief of Surgery at this hospital. He has been the Brigade Chief on two missions to Venezuela in his 20+ year medical career. He is a neurosurgeon and has operated on ‘historicos’ and generals and a very famous troubadour. Still he has never earned more than 35 cuc per month. Sometimes he rides his bike to work from “Esquina Tijeras” or he takes a crowded bus. He dislikes taking the bus since he never gets a seat and his hands are cramped from holding on by the time he gets to work and he always has early surgeries. His daughter works as a cabaret dancer in a famous hotel and earns at least 5 times as much as her father. He is a decent, hard-working man with nothing bad to say about anyone, including his government. He works under the physical conditions accurately described in the post and manages to save lives anyway. I have been accused that I never say anything good about Cuba. Well, here goes: Despite the most f*cked up conditions, slave wages, and practically using steak knives instead of laser scalpels, my good friend does a great job.

  • Hey Carlyle, do you thinks Cuba is playing on a level playing field with the USA Embargo around their neck? Tolerance? Not for Cuba?

  • USA/Cuba Embargo shh…. it does not hurt the Cubans. USA #1 Bully

  • Do not concern yourself. There is the new port at Mariela to be shown to all visiting dignataries, a connecting road from the autopista is being constructed at enormous expense. There is little sign of additional traffic on the autopista travelling to the new port but it is the pride of the regime. This is their priority and the people of Cuba have no say but are expected to behave like Che Guevara’s “new man”. I know of another hospital in another of Cuba’s cities which has the facade of a marble entrance hall and is served by dedicated doctors and nurses. But at the rear of the hospital where the unfortunate patients receive care, door handles are missing, there are holes in walls and the windows are broken. Does the Party know or care? Viva la Revolution is their cry!

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